doctor who

I Love The Bones Of You by Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.

Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.

There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.

Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.

I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…


A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction

The first book review I’ve written for Luna Station Quarterly has appeared today (Doctor Who novel, nailing my colours to the mast at the start), which is exciting and I urge you all (assuming you’re a partaker of speculative fiction) to go and read it, then lose yourselves for a couple of hours in the vastness of their archives. Further reviews should emerge quarterly, in a column I’ve called ‘A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction’, mainly because I’ll be reviewing whatever I happen to have stumbled across that’s good, so it’ll be a bit random (but also because I once did a research project involving random walks, and you know me and maths jokes).

In other exciting news, my friend Alice and I will be holding a story-telling event at the York Festival of Ideas on June 10th (I’d link to their site but it still has the 2014 details up, I’ve seen a proof of the programme this week and when it’s available I’ll mention it here). The theme of the festival is Secrets and Discoveries, so our evening will focus on the importance and the dangers of secrets, through myths and fairytales, and a couple of stories I’ve written (one historical, one sci-fi).

What with all that and the writing workshop I’m going to in the morning, I feel positive and busy, but none of this is getting me any further with editing the sci-fi noir novel…

Differences in the similar – the lack of a shared experience

In The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart mentions people listening to a particular wireless programme because everyone at work will have listened and they want to be able to join in when people are talking about it. I remember something similar when Friends was first on British TV, with twittering groups of girls at school the next day saying ‘did you see the bit when…?’ (I wasn’t one of them, but I’m sure you’d guessed that). I’ve watched a most annoying episode of Doctor Who just so I can talk about it with Big Brother later, keeping us in touch when we’re apart at Christmas, but is there much of that left?

To stick with TV for a moment, there are so many cable, satellite and Freeview channels available now that it would be a big coincidence if a colleague had been watching the same programme as you (a friend with a certain amount of shared tastes is a different matter – I forget what the programme was but I’d watched something minority-interest on the iplayer a while ago and was amused to find that friend T had watched it too). And with on-demand services (whether internet-based or a catch-up TV channel) and the possibility of recording it to watch at a more convenient time, even if you watch the same programme, by the time one person’s seen it, the other’s forgotten what it was about.

Music is easier to get hold of via the internet, not like the days of browsing through the rock section in HMV and taking your pick, and internet radio means we’re beyond the days when you could guarantee that someone would have listened to Tommy Vance because his was about the only rock show available. There’s more scope for being able to introduce people to music they might not have come across (that was always a popular way of trying to impress someone as a teenager, as I recall) but not so much of the joy of discovering that the person in your class that you’ve fancied for ages is also a big fan of (insert your favourite rock band here). Incidentally, even then it’s not plain sailing: OneMonkey’s happiest with the petulant edginess of The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys, whereas I’m often more inclined to wrap myself in the ribbon-festooned duvet of Bloodflowers.

With multiplex cinemas charging extortionate ticket prices and DVDs getting cheaper, excepting the occasional must-see, even going to the pictures isn’t likely to provide a talking-point later at work. And books aren’t worth considering in this context.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only truly shared experience like the ones Hoggart mentions seems to be the awful reality TV dross. It’s so picked-over in the media that if you want to watch, say, some sort of dancing final to get the excitement of seeing who wins, you need to do it within a few hours of it first being on TV, so you and all your friends will at least have watched it on the same evening. And if you want the shared experience without having to go through the pain of watching it, just pick up a tabloid on the way to work and you can join in all the highs and lows, as well as who’s hot and who’s not. Sharing’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Help! I’ve rewritten series 5 episode 3 of [insert classic TV sci-fi here]

There’s only so many stories in the world, I know that. And within a genre it’s easy to fall into cliche-traps. Your classic hard-boiled detective comes up against the gat, the girl and the gangster (not necessarily in that order) and the variation comes from how he handles it. Or maybe just the wisecracks.

I thought I was onto something with a recent story. It wasn’t breaking new ground but it was by no means riddled with cliche. Then I realised that if I pictured the central character as Tom Baker in a long scarf, it still worked. If I hadn’t quite rewritten turn by turn a 1970s episode of Doctor Who, it wouldn’t look out of place in the stack of scripts they never filmed. A brief period of crisis ensued: should I ditch the story entirely or just think of another central premise (but if I was going to do that, why not ditch it entirely)? Then I was hit by an uncharacteristic wave of confidence: countless stories and scripts have similarities of plot, it’s the writing and the characters that make them different.

The story survived, now all I have to do is redraft until the characters are individuals and the writing’s outstanding. See you in a few years…

Tidying some loose ends

I’m sorting out, this weekend. Tidying up, replying to overlooked emails, filing pieces of paper (and electronic equivalents). Last time I did this, I discovered the anthology some of my twitter fiction is in had been for sale on Amazon for a while without me noticing. This time I was reminded of something I meant to mention here but I don’t think I did – it was a most favourable review of said anthology, which brightened up my day.

I also don’t think I’ve mentioned that a reasonably long (9500 words or thereabouts) fantasy story of mine should be coming out at Strange, Weird and Wonderful in half a year or so, which I’m quite excited about. There has been a whisper of the possibility of an audio version – for all my talk of the well-spoken Yorkshireman, I have to say I’m not one of them, and I wonder if such stately prose (at least, it was intended that way) would survive my verbal mangling. Something to ponder over the coming months. The story was (though the location is never explicitly mentioned) set vaguely in the New Forest and Wales, though I’m not sure that has much bearing.

The other thing to mention is of course Neil Gaiman’s fantastic, oh so Gaimanesque episode of Doctor Who, which I saw on the iplayer. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I saw it mentioned in his journal (yes, I know, I really am beyond help), and I’m delighted to say I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. Someone asked me earlier this week what I wanted to do with my life, and the answer that sprang forth before I’d quite got my truth-filters in place was that I’d like to be Neil Gaiman. Not literally, you understand, but I wouldn’t mind following in his literary footsteps. Back to the story-crafting…

How to hook a reader in seconds: finding a good title

What’s the first part of your story that a reader sees? Whether it’s on the spine of a book, at the top of a magazine page, or in a table of contents, it’s the title, so it had better be a good one.

Pretty much all you can see is the title

Sometimes the title is the only thing someone will see, for example a bare list of titles and authors on a webpage – you have to entice the reader to click on your link purely on the strength of that title, before they even get a chance to experience your story. It can be amusing, quirky, groan-inducing, exciting and full of promise, but it definitely has to be eye-catching. If it’s in a mixed-genre setting it may also have to suggest its genre within its limited character set.

The Menagerie. Goth Opera. The Mind Robber. Shadowmind. Mission Impractical. Doctor Who and the Green Death.

Those are all titles of Doctor Who novels, but they don’t all have the same feel. When I acquired all those Doctor Who novels recently it struck me how the titles variously suggested horror, sci-fi, highbrow fantasy, tongue in cheek comic fantasy, old-fashioned mystery, adventure story for children, thriller, or some combination of these (and other) moods. Titles have such potential, but if you’re anything like me you may often throw one at your story at the last minute, an afterthought considered vaguely acceptable and sent out into the world. If so, you and I both need to think harder.

Blame my unfortunate affection for dodgy puns on my dad (and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again) if you like, but whatever the origin, I know I do use them in titles. Leaf Encounter for instance – their eyes met in a greengrocer’s shop and it seemed like an obvious choice; I hoped that it might also suggest to others some of the things it suggested to me, that maybe it wasn’t entirely serious and that it might involve a love that wasn’t to be.

For that reason I also use common phrases like Rain Stopped Play or Windows to the Soul. Rain Stopped Play isn’t about cricket (though it is about rain) but Windows to the Soul does have eyes as a central point. I use song-titles, some of which fit the mood (Resurrection Joe and Boys Don’t Cry are both about goths), some don’t (Wasted Years has very little to do with Iron Maiden but I still like it as a working title). Sometimes the title comes first – I have a few in my bits file that have only sparked glimmers of ideas or very rough outlines so far, and most of them will probably stay that way.

I don’t always throw in a title at the last minute, and I don’t always stick with the first title I think of – Boys Don’t Cry had two previous titles I think, but was usually known as the gothlad comic. A good indication that your title isn’t so hot is when you and your closest friends can’t remember it; I had another story recently which a friend was trying to refer to and had to fall back on a plot summary, and when he apologised for forgetting the title I had to confess I couldn’t remember it either (I’ve renamed it since, and I now know it’s called Cracks in the Foundations).

I’d already started drafting this post (see the work that went into this) when I spotted a link to a wordpress advice page about choosing eye-catching post titles, and certainly the basic principles of that also apply to story (or any other) titles. I’m not claiming I come up with good titles, in fact mainly I’m saying the opposite, but I’m trying to learn, both for stories and blog posts, and if I’ve made you think a bit harder about the next title you have to come up with, that’s probably a good thing. Just don’t blame me when you’re stressing about it.

Second-hand book emporium of doom

Inevitably, I have been seduced by second-hand sci-fi again. The very same shop that left me with a stack of CJ Cherryh novels and nowhere to put them has now provided me with a serious overload of Doctor Who novels. I went in innocently enough (in fact I’d been going to walk past, till OneMonkey suggested ‘just a quick look’), started browsing the shelves and thought ‘Oh wow, a 1970s 4th Dr novel, haven’t seen one of those in years’ – naturally enough I picked it up in case anyone else grabbed it while I was still looking. And I picked up the next one I saw, and then a more recent one (‘Paul Cornell, I’ve been meaning to read one of his’). Then the lady at the counter asked if I was a Doctor Who fan (luckily there were very few customers in so I quietly admitted it) and suggested I browse their boxes in the back room as someone had just donated an entire collection. Well, what can you say to that?

It’s occurred to me that since I’m unlikely to want to read them all one after the other in case of Doctor fatigue, and since I already have the To Read cupboard (now full, and overflowing to a small pile on top of it) including books I got for Christmas, and I’m bound to pick up or borrow books during the year that will jump the queue, I will at the very least be reading these well into next year and probably beyond. Unless I spend my Easter break on a Doctor Who novel binge?

Introspective retrospective

Partly for inspiration, partly to avoid repeating myself too much, I’ve just had a read through my posts from the last couple of Christmas breaks. It made me realise how little reading I did at Christmas this year, in fact I haven’t picked up the book I’m currently reading (History of Education in Great Britain by SJ Curtis, interesting but heavy-going so it’s taking me a while to get through) since the 23rd.

Books were still quite a feature of Christmas in the parental home, being given to OneMonkey (by me), me (by OneMonkey and my parents), my mum (by me and my sisters), Big Brother (by sister number 2) and my dad (by Big Brother and probably my mum and sisters though I realise I wasn’t paying attention at that point). On Christmas Day, however, the spare hours were filled with board games and Doctor Who. This year I was sitting next to BB, so we didn’t have to pull it to pieces on the phone later, though given the high quality of Moffat-written Christmas special we wouldn’t have had to anyway. Most enjoyable (and very little Amy Pond, which is a bonus in my opinion).

Which brings me to the other recurring feature, the resolutions and the look-back over the year. In 2010 I made only about three-quarters the number of submissions I made in 2009; 2 are still out and I had 6 accepted (compared with 7 in 2009) so although I slackened off a bit in 2010 (submissions between the end of February and the end of October only) I still did OK. One of the accepted pieces is due out soon in The View From Here.

The graphic novel, Boys Don’t Cry, finally came out in 2010 which was probably the high-point of the year for me – it’s something we’d talked about for so long, and its emergence has provided me with proof that with enough nagging from OneMonkey I really can stop talking about doing something and actually do it. I also bought a fabulous trilby this year (as seen at Thought Bubble) which lives by my bureau and is worn for inspiration, particularly for that noir mood (though I am in fact wearing it as I write this).

So all in all, another good year but as usual with a hint of ‘must try harder’. I shall finish this now, replenish my new mug with Earl Grey, grab a mince pie and get down to the serious business of finishing the story for Ostragoth Publishing’s next moody venture.

A big hand for Mr Moffat

Where would I be without the iplayer? With only an hour’s delay I saw the final episode of this series of Doctor Who last night and was mightily impressed. Tense, silly, tightly-written, taking care of most (all?) of the loose ends and hinting at further excitement to come. Steven Moffat’s first series has lived up to my expectations, and even Amy Pond grew on me a bit (though she doesn’t deserve such a devoted husband as Rory, I’m sure). I’m not saying the series was perfect, there were a few weak points but on the whole well-written and well worth watching. Here’s to the next one.

Endings and resurgence

Big Finish have announced their Doctor Who short story winners, and no, I’m not one of them. Better luck next time and well done to those who were successful. I did enjoy the challenge.

Is this evidence of a more buoyant mood? Well, perhaps. I’m trying to ignore our new prime minister’s existence for now (I did think I saw the lead horseman of the apocalypse but it turned out to be a raincloud) and focus on two more positive occurrences: I’ve just bought (on ebay – how modern of me) the 8th of a set of 10 elusive detective novels which I’m looking forward to reading, and I’ve written (my first completed piece in weeks) a short Alan Bennett style monologue which OneMonkey judges to be good stuff (if only it was half as good as Alan Bennett, I’d be a very happy writer). No idea what to do with it now, but I’ve finished it and that’s a start.

Ah, Labour weren’t really left-wing any more anyway. I’ll cope.

Fear as a guide to life

I let fear rule my life too often. Not just the self-preserving fear that stops me crossing the road when a bus is distantly visible down the street and may speed towards me at any time, but the fear that stops me writing. I sit frozen in front of the keyboard sometimes, not knowing where to start (or continue) a piece of writing. It’s as though the delete and backspace keys hadn’t been invented, and I get it into my head that not only will the next words I write be fixed forever, but I’ll have to show them to people. My hand hovers, I daren’t commit to a single letter: I know I’ll write something stupid or weak that will make everyone laugh. I’ve never stopped to ask myself why anyone would read it until I’m ready to pass it around, I just waste time and energy fretting over getting that perfect (or at least non-embarrassing) paragraph.

I have a fear of success too (don’t laugh, it might happen). I don’t mean a fear of being stalked by tabloid journalists because I’m a famous novelist (does that happen to writers, unless they’re known for something else already?), I mean what if some editor asks me to write a story, review, article or novel because they liked the last one I gave them. What if I then find I’ve run out of ideas (not likely, I’ve got enough in my notebook to last 2 lifetimes, it’s just a question of making something of them) or my standard’s slipped (surely OneMonkey will point this out and then pester me into writing better, he’s done it before) or I can’t complete it on time (though deadlines usually help me focus my efforts). So I’ve been procrastinating over Wasted Years, afraid that I might actually have to submit it (to an agent, like my brave friend D whose enjoyable novel for adolescents is about to go down that road?) if I finish redrafting, and I’ve been putting off contacting a magazine about book reviews in case they agree.

This week I’ve been reading On Writing by Stephen King (more of which later, I’m sure) and for no good reason (it’s not as if it’s the first place I’ve read it) I’ve decided to take on board the advice of sitting down and writing for myself, not worrying about what anyone else will think or how good it is, just getting some words on the page. Having been so tentative about the Big Finish Doctor Who story thus far (what if I write dialogue that’s more 5th doctor than 8th?) I more than doubled my wordcount in an hour tonight. Much of it will be cut, other bits will be kept but reworded, but that’s OK because no-one but me has seen what it said in the first place (and because there’s no manuscript, they never will).

Activity without productivity

This week’s been reasonably full of stuff: a handful of submissions, an acceptance (issue 14 of Short, Fast and Deadly – available next Sunday) and some rewriting of the early chapters of Wasted Years to bring them into line with changes in my style over the six years I was writing it. Unfortunately there’s also been a lot of distraction via the BBC iplayer (a documentary on heavy metal, heavy metal from the BBC archives, and Iron Maiden concert footage, as well as the return of The Now Show which I could have just listened to on the radio, and a couple of other radio comedies I’d missed), spotify (working through the genre they like to call ‘hair metal’), and the great outdoors (not a website but a large expanse of moorland with gloriously snowy hills in the distance). All very invigorating and soothing to the soul, but it’s not getting me any nearer to completing that 8th Doctor story for the Big Finish call.

Did I mention I’m quite fond of Doctor Who?

My failure to notice things astounds me sometimes, like skim-reading the news on the Big Finish website and going ‘oh, short trips on audio, that’s interesting’ then moving on without spotting that the following paragraph was a call for submissions. If it wasn’t for a kind soul commenting on my last but one post, I could have missed it entirely. Those of you who’ve been with this blog a while (am I kidding myself when I think you really exist?) may remember my ambition to write an eighth doctor novel, and this Big Finish call is a step towards that I guess. Or rather, if I ever want it to happen, I really shouldn’t be missing this kind of opportunity: 2500 word story, any of the first eight doctors, by the end of March. Simple. Now where did I put my file of Doctor Who plot ideas?

Think positive

Big Finish received over 1200 Doctor Who pitches last week, so it says on their website, so just a teeny bit of competition for my own attempt. It was a useful experience though, with such a short timescale and a different kind of submission from the sort I’m used to. However, since this is apparently a much bigger response than they were expecting, it might make them think twice about doing it again so that may have been my only chance.

Speaking of competition, OneMonkey has recently joined the cut-throat world of retail as he tries to persuade the great British public to buy his art and crafts over at Folksy; with a bit of editorial role-reversal, I’ve been suggesting ideas and critiquing prototypes this week as he launched a Valentines Day range (mainly paintings on reclaimed wood) and OK, I kept one for myself, but it was irresistible (see it here if you’re interested).

I’ve also been reading the Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories over the last week or two (though I think I only read half the tales in full), and I was planning on commenting on it as I have done with other anthologies before. Very few of the stories I read seemed much like fantasy stories to me though: the date of publication ran from the late 19th century to  1992, and plenty of them were old-fashioned gothic/horror/supernatural tales, which isn’t to say they weren’t enjoyable, just that I wouldn’t have expected them in a fantasy book. I’ve now read a Conan the Barbarian story, but I’m so used to Terry Pratchett’s Cohen the Barbarian (who in fact featured in the last story in the book) that I was constantly waiting for the punchline. Enough of what I haven’t enjoyed, I’m enjoying the Philip K Dick novel I’m partway through, so I’ll go make some tea and get back to it.

The start of a Big Finish?

It may seem as though I’ve been hibernating, but in fact I’ve been beavering away at my submission to the Big Finish once in a blue moon opportunity for new writers to pitch Doctor Who script ideas, which I read about mere minutes after I wrote my last post. All social engagements have been cancelled, phonecalls have been ignored, OneMonkey’s editing skills have been called upon frequently, and thankfully I’m reasonably pleased with the finished product (440 words of outline and one short scene) which has now whizzed off to Big Finish. By the time I go to bed tonight I know I’ll be picking holes in my plot and wishing I’d redrafted the dialogue, but that (I think) is natural. Fingers crossed…

Holiday update

I know you’ve all been on the edge of your seats – will she have achieved all her aims by the end of the Christmas holidays? So to put your collective mind at rest, here’s an update: no mince pie crumbs in the keyboard as far as I can tell; 6 gallons of tea achieved days ago; 2 submissions made, not 3 (but I still have half a day left). Oh yes, and the serial novel is serial no more – its final chapter has been presented to its tiny audience. Hey, it only took me 6 years to finish; I’ll have the next one done in no time. Actually there is no ‘next one’ at the moment, I’m concentrating on redrafting Wasted Years (as it may as well be referred to now) and writing more short stories. You wouldn’t believe how excited and relieved I was when I saved that last chapter and sat back. Then OneMonkey, my best critic, didn’t think the last chapter worked that well so I had to rewrite it. But after that, when the monkey from Del Monte said yes, that was a very good feeling. Phew.

I won’t spoil this uplifting tale by complaining about the long-drawn-out regeneration into the eleventh doctor (another Peter Davison wannabe! Who’d have thought it?), or the injection of more cheapness by RTD (helping Captain Jack score in a bar? Really? And the lottery ticket!). Accentuating the positive, I await Steven Moffat’s reign with bated breath.

Is there a Doctor Who fan in the house?

I’m not claiming to know an awful lot about Doctor Who, I’ve seen a tiny proportion of the TV episodes (a couple of the 1st and 2nd Doctors, a few 4th and 5th, the film of the 8th, all of the 9th and a fair few 10th), read a dozen or so novels and listened to most of the 8th Doctor audio adventures from Big Finish. So in the grand scheme of things I’m a latecomer, an amateur, and thus have no business sharing my opinions with the world. Sometimes, though, it’s easier to get a feel for something, or to spot discrepancies, by jumping in the middle and darting around than by following sequentially at a steady pace. I appreciate that it’s hard to take over a character from other writers, and with the Doctor there’s over forty years of TV, audio and written adventures to take on board, assimilate, and do your best not to contradict, but sometimes it seems like Russell T Davies doesn’t even try.

Since I was in a house with a TV over Christmas, I watched part one of the Doctor Who special as it was shown, but by about halfway through I was only persevering so I could discuss it with Big Brother on the phone later in the evening (and by the sound of it, so was he). Too much running, jumping and shouting, too many showy special effects and not enough plot, explanation or reflection. I know the nature of TV and TV audiences has changed over the years but we’re a far cry from Tom Baker’s moral quandary over the destruction of the daleks at their creation. He asked ‘Have I the right?’ and stood around agonising for a while; the way RTD writes the tenth Doctor, I can’t imagine that sort of moral question even occurring to him as he runs in at full tilt, brandishing his sonic screwdriver (which surely should be the sonic Swiss Army knife these days, given its ever-growing extra features. I don’t remember him actually using it to get a stone out of a horse’s hoof, but as I said, I haven’t seen all the episodes).

This lack of a clear moral dimension is one aspect of the humanising of the Doctor. ‘Human interest’ is a useful hook to bring in or keep an audience and that’s always been there, usually with the (mainly human) companions; however, the Doctor himself is not human, and that is (or should be) one of the keys to his character. That potential for stepping back with cold detachment to do what he has to do, never allowing himself to get too attached to anyone, even deliberately distancing himself so that he can always move on when necessary, and a constant awareness of his great age and responsibilities. With the ninth Doctor the new era barely got going but with the tenth, RTD has really got into his stride – and apart from the heartbreak of losing Rose, we’ve had a love affair in pre-revolutionary France, a woman he tells his true name to (the implication being that he’s in love with her), and a marriage to Queen Elizabeth (complete with crass joke about her virginal nickname). All (or mostly) good drama, but hardly in character for the universe’s favourite eccentric scientist.

Every writer for Doctor Who, be it the TV, audio or written adventures, will put his or her own stamp on the episode, but at the same time they need to fit in, however tempting it may be to go off on a tangent. The main character is not yours to do with as you see fit, if you’re writing a novel or audio episode you might have to channel the spirit of Jon Pertwee, but even for the current Doctor, unless you want to explain all the womanising with some kind of midlife crisis or bang on the head, you need to follow the character’s natural arc.

As a complete contrast this Christmas I also read Lungbarrow, a seventh Doctor novel by Marc Platt which I recommend (rather brilliantly available as a free e-book from the BBC these days; second-hand copies of the original are hard to come by). I’d heard that this novel hinted that the Doctor might in fact be the Other, a reincarnation of a legendary powerful figure from Gallifreyan history. It didn’t so much hint as write it in 10-foot high letters decorated with fairy lights and underline it in blood, but it could be that I missed some hint of ambiguity, possibly due to references I didn’t pick up on because of my patchy knowledge. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable read, with next to no ‘action’ but plenty of pathos, human interest and intrigue. I wonder if RTD ever read it?

Educational evenings in West Yorkshire

Now it’s the weekend and I’m marginally more alert, time to explore my Doctor Who authors evening further.  All four authors (Robert Shearman, Mark Michalowski, Mark Morris and Simon Guerrier) were pleasant chaps, though I guess if you’re not, you don’t get invited (or allowed?) to do these kind of events. They all came across as long-standing fans, genuine enthusiasts, and in fact when I asked how they got their Doctor Who opportunities, the common theme was that people knew they were big fans, liked their existing novels/plays/TV scripts and asked if they’d like to join in. Joining in does seem the right phrase; they made it sound like all the current writers, be it for the BBC TV series, Big Finish audio releases or either company’s novels, knew each other and regularly met up for publicity events or just for an evening in the pub. That’s probably not a wholly accurate representation but I can imagine that if they’re mainly fans then any who do meet will at least have some common ground.

Believe it or not, it was quite an educational experience. For instance I found out that Doctor Who authors sometimes have to go into schools to do what in some circles would be known as outreach events – not an occupational hazard I’d considered when I started daydreaming about being one someday. They also get told which monsters they can or can’t use and, however loosely, when and where to set the story. I can see how some people would find that frustrating, but that would focus my efforts – if I have complete free rein my mind runs in too many directions at once. Which is where OneMonkey comes in; he’s good at narrowing my vision by suggesting a particular direction (I might then go in the opposite direction, but at least he’s helped me get there).

If you want to see a photo of the evening (sadly not including much of Morley Town Hall’s overblown Victorian interior, all dark wood and stained glass) try this blog. Looks like it was taken by the guy across the aisle from me, and yes he did ask a good question, but I won’t spoil his fun by telling you what it was.

Out of character

I went, I saw, I spoke to not one but two Doctor Who writers in person at the Morley Literature Festival tonight. I surprised myself and shocked OneMonkey by asking a question from the audience, speaking almost entirely coherently into the microphone brandished by the roving host. I embarrassed myself by blurting out my connection with the previous Chain Gang as Rob Shearman signed an 8th Doctor CD inlay for me, but that did get me a handshake and a brief chat about the new Chain Gang series. And finally I spoke to Mark Michalowski, but all I managed to say was that I didn’t have anything for him to sign because I’d only borrowed one of his books from the library (I have only read one of his Doctor Who novels, I did borrow it from the library, and I really enjoyed it, but I’m guessing it’s not the greatest thing to have someone say to you at a book-signing). I’m quite pathetically excited about my evening, but also slightly cringing and it’s reminded me why I’m usually antisocial. Time for bed…

A funny thing happened away from the forum

Call me old-fashioned (and indeed hypocritical, given that I have a blog and regularly submit to online magazines) but I’m not convinced of the benefits of constantly accessible interactivity. I am antisocial by nature (which is useful as I have a physics background and a job that makes eyes glaze over if I mention it, so it saves me from disappointment) and writing stops me from having to interact directly with people. Or so I thought, but now it seems there’s a forum on each magazine website (even if the magazine is print only), and readers are often invited to comment on stories. If other writers take the time to comment on mine, shouldn’t I return the favour?

As in the real world, I now have a vague sense in the online world that I’m missing out somehow. In these days of social networking sites, the closest I’ve got to any of them is with my twitter fiction (which seems to be getting used as a better catch-all term for the 140 character stuff). I enjoy the challenge of such a short word-limit, and I’m interested to see if twitter fiction is a fad or a lasting way of dripping some stories into busy lives, but I don’t get Twitter as a general concept. The trouble with networking online is that you have to be active; you can’t just hang around on the edge of a group, listening but not joining in, hoping that you’ll become a familiar face and that might help you achieve whatever it is you’re there for.

There’s a Doctor Who writers evening in October as part of the Morley Literature Festival, and since Robert Shearman will be there, I thought I’d make the trek after work (I say trek, I mean simple if lengthy bus-ride). Robert Shearman wrote the first and last episodes of the BBC7 Chain Gang that gave me my first bit of exposure, and he also wrote probably the two most brilliant 8th Doctor audio adventures, Scherzo and The Chimes of Midnight, so you can see why I might get excited. Just don’t expect me to speak to him.