Posts Tagged With: justin richards

The Curse of the Shoehorning Titles

timelordletters

I recently finished The Time Lord Letters. One of those tie-ins (this one by Justin Richards) that do quite well for a while and then end up in The Works at £5.99, it revisits a number of stories in the form of imagined correspondence – letters, memos, the occasional post-it – usually revisiting the events of the narrative after the fact. The Tenth Doctor, for example, writes to Harriet Jones after he has a hand in deposing her. His immediate predecessor writes to Charles Dickens just after they’ve fought off ghosts in Cardiff. And the Fourth Doctor writes to the survivors of Storm Mine 4 (not that there are many) just after ‘Robots of Death’, apologising for leaving without waking them (cross-reference under hashtag #sorrynotsorry).

Sometimes the letters anticipate stories rather than reflect upon them: the Eleventh Doctor, for example, writes to a shop in Colchester asking for a job. Others dip into them in the middle of a narrative: there is a nice one from the Second Doctor to the Time Lords asking for help with the War Games. Still others skate around the lake of randomness: there’s one from a very young First Doctor to Borusa complaining about his school report (this is funnier if you’ve actually read said report, which is in another book). And the Twelfth Doctor’s reference for Clara is quite amusing, and very Twelfth Doctor. The whole thing is nicely presented, a variety of different (and usually well-chosen) fonts to illustrate the different Doctors’ handwriting styles, and it contains (a rarity in a New Who book) a pleasing mixture of Classic and Modern.

But there were bits of it that set my teeth on edge.

It’s not that Richards gets the tone wrong. For the most part I could imagine the Doctors (and other characters that occasionally contribute) speaking the words listed with utter conviction. That, in itself, is a big part of the problem. Because – well look, let me give you an example, occurring as it does in the form of the First Doctor’s farewell note to Susan.

susan

At a guess: you read that and then halfway through thought “Hang on, this is what he said inside the TARDIS! Word for word!” And indeed, it is.

Exactly the same thing happens when Martha leaves, as you’ll see when you find yourself quoting her speech.

martha

The implication behind both entries (it’s there in the note at the top) is that this is something the Doctor / Martha wrote down in case they didn’t have time to say it out loud, but it’s fine because they did. Using their exact words. As the Tenth Doctor does in his letter to Sally Sparrow, in which he says “There was a sort of a thing happening. Four things in fact. And a lizard.” Which is amusing when it happens in ‘Blink’, because it’s precisely the sort of improvised, disjointed thing you’d expect him to say in the heat of the moment, and a deliciously open-ended non-sequiteur at the end of an episode bent on being as self-contained as possible. Are we really expected to believe that in the aftermath, when he’d had time to think, the Doctor would have written those exact words? Again?

Perhaps Richards had a deadline and ran out of mojo. Or perhaps it was an authorial decision: the inclusion of great chunks of published dialogue instantly familiarises the audience. Perhaps I’m in a minority but I simply can’t get comfortable with it. Is it really necessary to have the Fifth Doctor write down his precise parting words to the Cranleighs after he leaves the house at the end of ‘Black Orchid’? Even when it’s not full text, there are needless references thrown in. The words ‘Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ appear far more than they should. The Twelfth Doctor goes on about tangerines in his letter to Santa (which concludes, amusingly enough, with ‘P.S. – do I really stick this up a chimney now?’). And when writing to Dickens, the Ninth Doctor mentions The Signalman. Again.

It’s a problem that doesn’t dog The Secret History of Twin Peaks – something Emily bought me for Christmas and which I’m enjoying tremendously. The town of Twin Peaks, as it turns out, has a long history stemming back to Lewis and Clark, by way of displaced Native Americans, assorted encounters with the military, and two feuding families. There is rather too much UFO stuff (indeed, the book contains references to pretty much every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that weren’t) but perhaps this was inevitable after The X-Files, a show that arguably would not have happened without Twin Peaks. What’s interesting is that it explores the history of the town without making explicit references to anything the characters actually said, content instead to flesh it out with imagined press cuttings, meeting transcripts, and journal entries. And I think I’m just getting to the good bit.

twin-peaks

References to source material – cryptic or otherwise – are endemic in this age of digital television. It’s easier than ever to spot the small stuff (I should know; I made an entire series out of it). So when we’re told that there are Torchwood Easter Eggs in Sherlock, it’s not a great surprise. Indeed, the entire script is chock full of references to Conan Doyle’s characters, locations and other stories, whether it’s from a postcard on a fridge or the sign on a receptionist’s desk. It’s borderline saturation and is, in all likelihood, deliberately designed that way. If you spend every waking hour talking about obscure trivia, you barely have time to notice all the plot holes.

Nonetheless there’s a difference between subtle visual clues and the kind of shoehorning that happens in…look, I was going to give Lord of the Rings as an example, but that’s actually what I wanted to talk about, so let’s deal with the elephant in the room for a minute. Because while it’s one thing to have the Tenth Doctor awkwardly refer to himself as “James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory” at the beginning of ‘Tooth and Claw’, or mutter “Brave heart, Clara” as he’s leading her in the direction of a scream halfway through ‘The Crimson Horror’, these are minor transgressions compared to the stuff that happens under Peter Jackson’s watch.

Consider The Hobbit (we’re talking about the book, at least for the moment), and Bilbo’s despair when he and his Dwarvish companions are plunged into yet another bad situation. Tolkien picks up the thread:

“‘Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!’ he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

And that, indeed, is the title of the chapter. And presumably Thorin has read the book, which is what prompts him to say “Out of the frying pan,” to which Gandalf adds “And into the fire!”. To be fair to him, Gandalf has form. He it was who languished by the fireside in Bag End, muttering “Riddles in the dark…”, although it is left to the Hobbits to awkwardly shoehorn another chapter title into an early scene (which, by the way, is nothing like it is in the book):

MERRY: That was just a detour. A shortcut.
SAM: A shortcut to what?
PIPPIN: Mushrooms!

Thankfully, that’s when the Nazgul turns up and they’re all too busy avoiding Morgul blades to think of jokes, at least until the Council of Elrond. “Nine companions?” says the sombre Elf. “So be it. You shall be…THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING!”

gandalf_fellowship

Look, calling out chapter names is OK when it’s as bland as, I don’t know, ‘Helm’s Deep’. You wouldn’t have got very far without that. Theoden would have had to say “WE GO TO MY VALLEY CLUBHOUSE!”, which would have been rubbish. Similarly (and steering the conversation back towards Doctor Who), the whole concept of ‘Listen’ revolves around the act of listening – chiefly to oneself – and although it’s never really apparent why the Doctor comes out of his meditation bellowing that single word, except that it looks creepy on a blackboard, it more or less works. Less effective is having Rita say “That’s quite a God complex you have there” while the Doctor’s being all self-important, but if anything that’s because of the title of the episode, rather than anything in it. And yet the title works because of its multiple layers. Which is the chicken here, and which the egg?

Sometimes it does seem that Doctor Who is mocking the Jackson fetish for awkward insertions (and yes, I know he’s not the only culprit, but these films have been sycophantically fawned over for years and it really is time we talked about how rubbish they are in places). Having the Doctor bellow “Dinosaurs…ON A SPACESHIP!” is both self-indulgent and brilliant, and in an episode that was less ridiculous it would have stuck out like a sore thumb – in this case, it’s all just part of the fun. Having Mels shout “OK, LET’S KILL HITLER!” is somewhat less successful, but again the story gets away with it because of sheer silliness. (You will note that every episode I’ve mentioned here was broadcast within the last seven years – if there’s one thing Russell T Davies seldom had a problem with, it was titles.)

Listen_02

There is, at least, one sin of which the Lord of the Rings films are not guilty, and that’s to end on a title. Their last words are generally fairly profound, or laced with hidden profundity as the characters gaze out at a beautiful / dismal / dazzling / foreboding skyline, wind machine optional. Ending on a title is just about the worst thing an author can do, apart from conclude a story with “…and then I woke up”. It’s the literary equivalent of concluding your drama class sketch with “That’s it”. It isn’t wrong, but we Just Don’t Do It. (Sue Townsend did, of course, and I still haven’t quite forgiven her.)

And yet authors do. It was endemic within the sort of dreadful novels my mother used to enjoy – the Domestic Sagas, light and easy to read, covers emblazoned with soft-focus pictures of impassioned romantic couples or resilient single parents. Examples that spring immediately to mind are Elizabeth Murphy’s A Nest of Singing Birds and a book called As The Crow Flies which could have been written by anyone, given the popularity of its title (and no, it was not the Damien Boyd one and it probably wasn’t the Jeffrey Archer one either). But the greats aren’t immune – Bill Bryson finished Neither Here Nor There, his great European travelling memoir, in exactly this fashion, and no, I don’t care that it’s a pun. It’s colossally lazy. If you must, just use a different title. Titles are easy. It’s endings that are hard.

Thank goodness Doctor Who never does this. Right?

endquotes

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Weazle Words (part one)

9781405920025

It’s Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays. It’s October, which means the Great Pumpkin, harvest, and our wedding anniversary, not in that order. And over at Penguin, Justin Richards has released a new book entitled Time Lord Fairy Tales. Aimed at the 7-11 age bracket, it promises to be “A stunning illustrated collection of fifteen dark and ancient fairy tales from the world of Doctor Who.”

But which fairy stories, you may ask? Well, this is one of the digital download summaries:

The Scruffy Piper
Read by: Nicholas Briggs

Space Station Hamlyn is under siege. Thousands of small metal creatures are flying through space, sent by silver warriors to burrow inside the station. The crew’s only hope is a slightly scruffy-looking stranger, with a recorder and a mysterious blue box . . .

 

And I confess that when I read this synopsis, my first words were “Oh, bugger”. Because I’ve just spent eighteen months writing (and a good deal more time planning) a Doctor Who novel which runs along very similar lines.

There are differences, of course. Richards has produced a short story aimed at children. I’ve produced a full-length novel set in twelfth century Hamelin – specifically, Hamelin after the Piper has been and gone, when the Doctor arrives to find a town that’s a shell of its former self. The story of the Pied Piper tells of one lame child who did not make it through the rock face before it closed, and it was this that provided a starting point. How would such a boy be treated in the wake of such a terrible thing? Would he be a victim? A pariah? A political pawn? What about his parents? It’s into this situation that the Doctor is thrust – but he hasn’t been in Hamelin long when the murders begin…

Is there a bit of flag-planting going on here? Probably. Am I territory marking? Well, I’m trying not to. But I know how this works: I know that somewhere along the line, if this ever sees the light of day, I’m going to be told that I stole the idea. And I can deal with that. No one can copyright an idea and I’m sure that I’m not the first person to join the dots between the Piper and the Doctor (and that’s even discounting the quite splendid Challenge of the Piper). Do I think it’s better than some Past Doctor Adventures? Well, yes, to be honest. It’s not exactly Booker material, but at least it’s consistent and tells a reasonable story, which is more than you can say for [THIS TEXT HAS BEEN AUTOMATICALLY CENSORED BY THE AUTHOR’S INNER DIPLOMAT].

I’m also not stupid: actual publication of this thing is (at time of writing) nothing more than a pipe dream. Unsolicited fiction is generally ignored these days, and everyone and their grandmother has written a Doctor Who novel. Thus when I visited a local writer’s event the other week I was advised – before I heard about this new book – to get the thing online in the meantime. “You might as well publish it,” the affable Australian to whom I was speaking said. “You won’t make any money, but there’s no law against it, and at least it’s out there.”

But I can’t bring myself to share the whole thing yet. It’s finished, but it’s not ready. It’s three hundred pages and on a good day it feels like a complete novel, with subplots and character development and an interesting story. On a bad day it feels like bad fanfic – desperate writing with a continuity obsession that rivals that of Ian Levine with a headache. There is a whole storyline that I’m still not convinced should actually be there – something that sort of works but which, I think, might be a colossal white elephant.

If you really want to read the whole thing, I’ll supply it on demand. But I’d rather get it polished first (Emily has, just this evening, pointed out that I need to establish whether or not Amy was in the Guides or the Scouts, as currently she’s in both). I am having it read by several people who will hopefully give me varying pieces of advice that I’ll take on board or politely discard.

However. The first chapter is, at the moment, about as good as I’m going to get it, and it’s incidental to the story, so you can read it. Here’s the first bit. The rest will follow next week. Hey, it worked for Dickens, and he got to hang out with the Doctor.

TARDIS_Kitchen

Chapter One, Part One

The time rotor in the middle of the TARDIS control console was stuck. Normally it glided up and down the column with a sort of calm fluidity, in the manner of a descending lavatory ballcock or a thirty-seven-year-old woman doing yoga. It was a graceful motion, one that seemed firmly at odds with the ship’s trademark wheezes and groans. But not today. Today it seemed to catch a few inches from its usual peak, where it would sit there, trying to move, but apparently caught fast.

The ship itself was not stuck, of course The Doctor had explained that while the time rotor’s mechanism appeared to be malfunctioning, the time rotor itself was not. “Still the same old TARDIS,” he said. “The rotor’s caught, but it’s still working. Except – ”

“Except what?” came the voice from below.

“Well, except that we’re careering backwards through time and I don’t know how to stop it,” the Doctor replied.
“That’s not exactly what I’d call working.”

“That’s not exactly what I’d call a skirt, Pond. You look like you forgot what you were doing halfway through getting dressed. Now hand me that spanner.”

The Doctor was perched on top of the console, legs spread slightly apart in order to minimise the likelihood of one of the sudden backwards tumbles for which his current incarnation seemed to be so notorious. It was no fun having to go through clumsy phases, the Doctor mused as he loosened one of the glass plates that hid the inner mechanism. That was the problem with regeneration. You never knew when loss of coordination would show up. It was like having to go through puberty again. The Doctor was fairly sure he’d done that on at least three occasions over the years, as a side effect of the body clock reset that hit him whenever he suffered a mortal wound. That was something they didn’t teach you at the academy.

Amelia Pond was leaning casually against one of the nearby columns, arms folded, watching with a composite of affection and amusement. The Doctor never seemed so at home as when he was knee deep in circuitry, she thought, or so frustrated. Many was the time she would enter the control room and find him cursing in what she assumed was Gallifreyan. He was one of these well-intentioned types who never read the manual. He reminded her of her own fath-

– Except she couldn’t remember her own father.

Why couldn’t she remember her own father?

Amy was comfortable with the idea of fathers as an abstract concept, of course. The notion sat with her. But it occurred to her now, within the quiet and solace of the time machine, even as the ancient elf behind her worked himself into a frenzy amidst a maelstrom of grunts and curses, that she never really thought about her parents. They seemed to exist in a vacuum; she didn’t know because it never occurred to her to ask about them. It wasn’t that her family history was entirely unknown. She could remember her aunt well enough, and those eerie, moonlit evenings at the house in Leadworth, where the beams floodlit the room and seemed to strike everything except the crack in her wall. But beyond that…it wasn’t a taboo topic, just one that had never come up. Amy wondered why she’d never asked.

This troubled her. There was something else; something that sat undiscussed. There was an elephant, and every so often it would stretch out a wrinkly, invisible trunk and tap her on the shoulder. It was a shadow in a mirror, a trick of the light, a thing that you could have sworn moved even though you saw nothing and knew it wasn’t possible. There was something that the Doctor wasn’t telling her.

Truth be told, there was plenty that the Doctor didn’t tell her. She didn’t know his name; that was off-limits. He wasn’t grumpy about it, but early conversations they’d had made it clear that this was like discussing an old marriage with a new partner, or like a kid she’d gone out with at seventeen who’d lost his sister to cancer and would clam up for the reset of the evening if her name was ever mentioned.

“Why on earth would you want to know my name, Pond?” the Doctor had asked her. And curiously, she’d been unable to come up with an answer that made any kind of sense, largely because when viewed in human terms it was a stupid question. But the Doctor, of course, wasn’t human. She knew that much. And he was the last of his kind; she knew that much as well. He didn’t talk about Gallifrey. That was off-limits, geographically and conversationally. Amy gave a mental shrug. There were other things to worry about. Such as why she could smell –

“– burning?”

Atop the control panel, the Doctor swivelled. “Burning? Are you sure?”

Amy nodded. “Over there.” She pointed to the east wall, or what the Doctor always referred to as the east wall, although how he had worked this out was beyond her comprehension. The TARDIS could reconfigure rooms any way she wanted – and frequently did, often just to perplex the Doctor – but currently the east wall led through to the kitchen.

The Doctor gave her a look. “Amy, did you leave the toaster on again?”

Despite herself, she felt her eyes rolling incredulously. “That one time -”

“Yes, and I’m still trying to get the smell out of the Bandulucian rug. Cost me a fortune, that rug did. And I had to pay extra postage. Honestly, Ebay. I ask you.”

“Definitely burning,” Amy said, trying to steer him back to the subject.

“Fine,” sighed her host, opening a panel below the handbrake and pulling out a small fire extinguisher and two bright green kite-shaped pieces of plastic that Amy supposed – correctly, as it turned out – were gas masks.

“Put this on,” he said, holding one to his face and hefting the extinguisher in the other hand. “In case of emergency, exits are over there.” He gestured over his shoulder at the TARDIS doors, and then turned his attention to the east wall. “Smells like it’s coming from one of the adjoining rooms, anyway. We’ll investigate, but keep directly behind me. And if I say run, run.”

“Where to?”

“Away from whatever is that’s chasing us. Honestly, do I have to start drawing pictures?”

 

The two of them left the deep blue of the control room and wandered through into a spacious kitchen area. Carved into a large U-shape measuring fifty square feet or more, the black marble work surfaces flanked a central breakfast area with metal bar stools arranged round a raised table. The worktops were late twentieth century in design but filled with gadgets and models from all epochs of culinary history, with a slight bias towards 1950s Earth. A well-thumbed Mrs Beeton sat propped up against a beige mixing bowl, which in turn sat next to a set of pan scales. When she’d first explored the kitchen, Amy had opened the book to find a faded inscription, scrawled in black ink: To my dear Doctor, with love as always. Thank you for the shortbread recipe.

There was no time for browsing today. The Doctor skirted elegantly round one side of the U-shaped counter, opening cupboards and checking behind jars and mug racks. Amy followed his lead and moved to the other end, ignoring the colossal fridge that dominated the far end. A minute or so later they had exhausted the last cupboard and found nothing. The Doctor spun on his heel and began pacing, chewing on a fingernail. “Nothing. No sign of anything.”

“I didn’t imagine it,” said Amy, with more than a trace of indignance.

“I know you didn’t. I can smell it as well, now. But there’s no trace of any loose wires, nothing left lying around.” His eyes wandered across to the far corner. “Did you check the fridge?”

“Why would I check the fridge?”

“It can still burn. I know it’s cold, but – ”

The Doctor stopped, mid-sentence. The fridge had wobbled.

“Did you see that?” The moment the words were out of Amy’s mouth she regretted them, but if the Doctor found her response banal, he was gentlemanly enough not to show it. “Yeah. Something in the fridge.”

“Something still alive?”

“Either alive or in the throes of death, hence the wobbling. Sadly it’s impossible to know, unless we open it.” The Doctor grinned, despite himself. “Schrödinger’s fridge.”

“How did it get in?” she asked.

“That market we visited on Roxx 3? It probably sneaked on there. You know, when I had the TARDIS doors open for a moment. But I still don’t know what it is.”

“It’s not gonna be, like, a huge dog sitting on top of a temple?”

“No, not in a fridge. Cat, possibly. Chinchilla, even.”

The Doctor inched closer to the door of the large white refrigerator. “Only one way to find out.”

Keeping at arm’s length, and holding the sonic screwdriver pointed forwards in his other hand, like a magic wand – which, in a way, it was – the Doctor grasped at the handle and swung the door open. Inside were several shelves stocked with yoghurt, shrink-wrapped vegetables – some of Earth origin, many not – and cheese, At the top, there was a large ice box.

At the bottom, there was a ball of blue fur. With ears.

The blue furball was eating a carrot. When it noticed the fridge light come on and the temperature start to creep up, it halted abruptly. The ears swivelled upwards like satellite dishes and faced the Doctor. The half-eaten carrot fell from what Amy assumed was a mouth and hit the plastic base of the fridge with a thud. It rolled forwards and out and landed on the kitchen floor.

The furball’s ears twitched slightly, as if waiting for a response from the Doctor. The Doctor squatted, beaming with delight. “A moss ball! My goodness, this is a blast from the past. And he’s hungry!” He cocked his head on one side and poggled the moss ball’s ears; not that there was much else to poggle. “That explains the burning smell, anyway. They’re always a little malodorous when they’re eating.”

Moss Ball

Amy glanced at him and then at the blue bundle of fluff, not really sure how she should respond. “A what?”

“A moss ball. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you.”

“It’s not – actually made of moss, is it?”

“No, it’s basically mammalian in composition. Well, half mammal, half arthropod. It comes from the sea forests of Hathendia.”

“That sounds like something out of a fantasy novel.”

“Oh, it is, Amy. It really is. Try and imagine the bluest, most brilliantly sparkly ocean you’ve ever imagined, right? Now, take that and turn it into a forest. With blue foliage on the trees. Plants that are aquamarine. Turquoise tree trunks.”

“What colour is the sun?”

“The sun is yellow, of course, but it hardly ever shines. Instead they have millions of fireflies, all lighting up the place. Completely harmless. Well, apart from the ones that aren’t.”

“And this – thing? It lives there?”

“Yes, it does.” The Doctor leaned in closer to get a better look at the stowaway. “The fur is basic camouflage, of course. It looks like any other plant. Which is very handy, because it’s preyed upon by a very nasty creature called the snapweazle.”

“OK,” said Amy. “That’s a seventies kids show waiting to happen.”

“Been there, done that. 1770s, of course, and a different planet. Anyway. The moss ball is a herbivore, but the snapweazle is a hundred per cent carnivorous. Nasty bite. And completely silent, so you seldom hear them coming.”

“Doctor – ”

“This little fellow looks positively starving. My guess is a snapweazle chased him out of the woods and he kept running – well, rolling – until he wound up in someone’s bag. And that someone was probably some sort of space tourist, and they went to Roxx 3, which is where it escaped from their baggage and found its way to the TARDIS. Hopefuly the snapweazle didn’t follow.”

“Doctor?” Amy’s voice carried an urgency that the Time Lord, who was now monologuing as if there were no tomorrow, missed completely.

“That’s the other thing about snapweazles, you see, Amy. They’re the most persistent psychotic plants in the known universe. Once they find a moss ball they like, they’ll pursue it across the stars. Well, never mind, little guy. You’re safe in here, aren’t you?” The Doctor gripped the furry ball in his hands and gave it a nose rub.

“Doctor…”

“And then, of course, there’s the fact that the snapweazle gets bigger and bigger the hungrier it gets. And it’s standing behind me right now, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

 

Read Part Two

Categories: The Child Left Behind | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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