Battle Scars

Big Finish Productions have announced Doctor Who – Short Trips: Battle Scars, my second Doctor Who story for the audio drama company. Here’s the synopsis:

Nightmarish memories of the Boer War. Crippling debts. An unconscious stranger in the garden. Arthur Daniels is beset with problems. Little does he know that his proposed solution could be the biggest problem of them all. A voyage to America aboard the RMS Titanic.

I can’t tell you much more than that, but I’m sure I can randomly mention that in the first 9th Doctor adventure, Rose learns that the Daniels family of Southampton were meant to travel on the Titanic but didn’t. She also sees a photo of the family with someone who bears a resemblance to the Doctor.

Needless to say, it’s an honour to have had the opportunity to write for Big Finish. They produce some really really good audio dramas, and not just Doctor Who.

“Battle Scars” is out in July.

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My Top Ten Doctor Who Episodes

Contains spoilers for the ten Doctor Who episodes listed here.

Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I’ve a particular fondness for Doctor Who. Like many who watch it, it’s been part of my life for, well, a very long time. And like any other viewer, I have my favourite episodes. I’ve never actually thought through which were my very favourite, so this has been an interesting exercise.

10. The War Machines. My very first episode of Who was the last installment of “War Machines” starring the first Doctor. It took me a long time to figure this out. After picking up the “War Machines” DVD, I thought recognized the machines, but definitely remembered the last episode. This is why “The War Machines” is in the list. For purely personal, nostalgic reasons. Mind you, it’s interesting to see that it hasn’t aged all that badly, and that the methods the Doctor employs for defeating the machines aren’t dissimilar to what we see today. It’s also interesting to see that the Doctor is quite caring of the people around him, a trait I don’t recall from the early days of the show.

9. Rosa. In this episode, humans, with their hatred of “coloureds”, are the monsters, and that makes this story all the scarier. Set in Montgomery Alabama in 1955, “Rosa” tells the story of Rosa Parks, a key figure in the American civil rights movement, who famously refused to give up her seat on a bus. There’s also a more traditional villain in the form of Krasko, an escapee from a future prison. Stormcage, no less, the very prison that held River Song after her conviction for killing the Doctor. In dealing with Krasko and his attempts to change history, this is where the thirteenth Doctor came into her own. A very powerful story, this is one of the finest in the show’s history.

8. The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End. Really, what’s not to love about this episode. Daleks? Check. Every post-2005 companion (plus Sarah Jane Smith)? Check. Universe-ending stakes? Check. Plus one of my favourite Who scenes, one I keep watching over and over. When it appears that all is lost, the TARDIS, thought destroyed, materializes, and out pops the Meta-Crisis Doctor. As Captain Jack says, “Brilliant!”

7. Twice Upon a Time. This episode is not only my favourite (by far) twelfth Doctor adventure, it’s my favourite Christmas special. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched it.

The twelfth Doctor meets his first incarnation at a time when both are reluctant to regenerate. The resulting potential temporal paradox causes a WWI captain to mysteriously appear in front of them in the Antarctic wasteland.

With this episode the twelfth Doctor has completed his character arc. At the beginning of this regeneration, coming as it did after hundreds of years of war on Trenzalore, he was so alien, so lacking in empathy, that Clara had to create cue cards so he could at least sound like he’s capable of feeling empathy. From that starting point, he developed into someone who implores people to be kind.

Was the first Doctor out of character? Of course he was. That was just Stephen Moffat having a bit of fun, in the same way that the twelfth Doctor had fun putting sunglasses on his predecessor and telling him, “Never take them off.” We also saw the first Doctor used as a way of highlighting how attitudes towards women have changed since the 60’s.

My favourite moment in the episode? The Testimony tells the twelfth Doctor that escape is not possible. “It is possible,” he retorts, “and it’s happening.” After some Doctor-to-Doctor exchanges, the Testimony reiterates, “Escape is not possible.” Then, as we hear the soaring twelfth Doctor theme, he says, “I’m going to do way more than escape,” and promises to find out what the Testimony is up to, and if he doesn’t like it, to stop them. “Who the hell do you think you are?” the first Doctor asks in disbelief. Placing his arms in a theatrical pose, twelve answers, “The Doctor.” Love that scene. Just love it.

6. An Unearthly Child. This is the one that started it all, and introduces us to the show’s big concepts. A police box, the TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the outside. It can transport you anywhere in space and time. The Doctor, a wandering, cantankerous alien who travels with his granddaughter Susan and the inadvertent stow-aways, Ian and Barbara. It’s aged surprisingly well and is always a pleasure to watch.

5. Blink. This episode is at the top of a lot of people’s lists, including @FilmCritHulk. It’s also the first episode that I’m aware of in which the Doctor, having instigated the action, steps into the background for much of the episode. Penned by Stephen Moffat and starring Carey Mulligan, this is the one that introduced us to the Weeping Angels, and they were scary as hell. A wonderful episode with chills, action, humour, and character development.

4. Utopia. If you’d been watching season 1 of Torchwood that year, you knew that Captain Jack Harkness couldn’t die. But no one, including him, knew why. This episode is where we find out. It features some fascinating dialog between Captain Jack and the Doctor, and we find the Doctor contemplating the fact that, without realizing it, he was feeling a kind of prejudice towards Jack. Of course, this sparkling episode is also notable for re-introducing the Master to modern Who. The War Master, no less, played by the brilliant Derek Jacobi. The first part of a season-ending trilogy, this is the episode that left me breathless.

3. The Day of the Doctor. The pressure on Stephen Moffat to come up with a 50th anniversary special must have been extraordinary. But he succeeded with flying colours, bringing the 10th and 11th Doctors together with the War Doctor, a regeneration that the Doctor had kept secret, even from himself. We got a complex but coherent story, our first glimpse of the Time War, and were introduced to fan-favourite character, Osgood. Let’s also add humour, ethical choices, adventure, conflict, all woven together into a seamless whole. Oh yes, and it brought back Gallifrey.

2. The Night of the Doctor. If there was an award for the most genius per minute, this short episode would win, hands down. “The Night of the Doctor” caused the Internet to virtually melt down, giving us that Holy **** moment when we realized that it featured the eighth Doctor, not seen on-screen since the TV movie in the 90’s. Every line of dialog is sheer genius (“Will it HURT?”), Paul McGann’s acting is brilliant, and, to the delight of many, it “legitimized” the Big Finish adventures because it named the companions that Eight had travelled with. At least, those he’d travelled with up until then.

1. The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon. These are the episodes that, for me, changed Doctor Who forever, taking it to a whole new level. Never before (to my recollection) had we seen episodes of this complexity and mystery. Meeting the still-living Doctor in the diner was an unforgettable moment. The Silence scared the hell out me. Then there were the head-scratching scenes, like Amy discovering a photo of herself with a baby. In the end, when the Astronaut girl starts to regenerate, I was completely gobsmacked. Throw in a brilliantly written script, with the actors pushed to out-perform anything we’d yet seen in the Matt Smith era, and you get a shining example of everything Doctor Who could be and should be. If you’re inclined to say, “But what about the children?” my answer would be that you’re likely underestimating children.

Excerpt from Promises, Promises

What follows is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Promises, Promises. I started this at least a couple of years ago. I haven’t made a lot of progress. Part of the problem is that I write very slowly, so much so that I’ve focussed on (thus far, unpublished) short stories so that I have something tangible and complete to show for my time.

I keep coming back to this novel, though, in part because I love the characters that inhabit this world. Mind you, given that the novel is of the horror genre, some of these characters will have endings that are a bit less than happy. The interesting thing about coming back to this work repeatedly is that, in the interim, you grow as a writer, and view your earlier prose with completely different eyes.

Please note that I may never finish this, and if I do, I reserve the right to completely retcon this opening scene. Having said all of that, I hope you enjoy it.

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Promises, Promises

by Selim Ulug

Copyright 2019 by Selim Ulug. All rights reserved. 

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Jennifer Fern closed her messaging app and put away her phone. It didn’t help. The words felt burned into her retina.

“Hey Jenny, sorry to send this by txt but don’t really want a scene. I don’t think it’s working out. We should probably stop seeing each other. Besides, I’ve met someone and don’t want to see her behind your back so… yeah. It’s for the best. No hard feelings?”

Blinking furiously, as if that would help her unsee what she had seen, she took deep breaths and scanned the pub. It was late afternoon, but early for the supper and after work crowd. There were a couple of people seated at the L-shaped bar with its gleaming, dark mahogany wood. Behind the bar, backing onto the flagstone wall, were open mahogany cupboards filled with assorted bottles of liquor. Throughout the pub, the ceiling was covered with square sections of wood paneling. The bar area, with its high chairs and small tables, was separated from the dining area by a long booth backed by a glass partition. A smattering of people were seated here. Some seemed to be tourists, resting their feet after a day of sight-seeing, judging by the backpacks they’d set to rest on the floor. In the dining area, Jenny noted, where only a couple of tables were currently occupied, Alyssa was leading a couple of men from the host station to one of her tables.

Grabbing a couple of menus, Jenny strode towards them. Fortunately, she was used to putting on her game face regardless of how her day was going. Perhaps, she contemplated, that was why actors made good wait staff.

“Hi, I’m Jenny,” she said, smiling as she wiped the table. “Something to drink?”

“Absolutely,” said one of them. “We’re celebrating.”

“Awesome,” said Jenny. “What’s the occasion? Birthday?”

“Better than that,” said the other man. “We’ve each just purchased our first property.”

“Congratulations! So that sounds to me like a pitcher’s worth of celebrating. Harp, maybe?”

“That’d be perfect, thanks.”

“I’ll get that for you then come back for your food order.”

Noting that Dar followed her with his eyes, Chris smiled and said, “She’s pretty.”

Turning back to Chris, Dar said, “Sure, if you happen to like women that are good-looking and pleasant with a nice smile.”

There was a pause during which Chris and Dar looked at each other, past each other, in silence. Finally, Dar said, “You look as stunned as I feel.”

Laughing, Chris said, “I know, right? I kept looking for something wrong with it. The location, the units, the price, they were almost too good to be true.”

“We were lucky,” said Dar. “It won’t take long before they’re snatched up.”
Jenny returned with a pitcher and two glasses. Dar ordered a curry, Chris a lamb stew.

Chris wasn’t able to eat much of his meal. This was surprising as he was noted for having a big appetite. However, the excitement of the day made it hard to think about food. Beer, on the other hand, was a completely different story.

Dar seemed to have not much more of an appetite, and after taking a few bites of their meals, they both ended up sipping their beers in silence, their attention wandering to the hockey game on the pub’s screens. It was near the end of the first period, and the Senators were already losing to the Leafs 2 to 1. The pub was filling in, the noise level rising considerably.

Jenny cleared away their plates, and they both assured her the dishes had been fine. “In fact,” said Dar, “I told my meal, it’s not you, it’s me.” Jenny laughed and offered coffee and dessert. They declined.

“So,” said Chris, “October first is coming up quickly. “We’ll have to plan this out.”

“I was thinking about that,” said Dar. “With the condo settled, I expect I can head back to Kingston tomorrow. We’ll book a truck for the first. By ‘we’, of course, I mean ‘you’.”

“Thanks,” said Chris. “I’m honoured by the… honour.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Dar. “You bring it down to Kingston, then we load it up, move me into the new place, then pick up your things. Get you out of Kanata and into a proper, civilized setting.”

“Hey,” Chris said. “Lot’s of highly cultured people live in Kanata.” Silence for a time, then he asked, “Will you miss Kingston?”

“For sure,” said Dar. “But Kingston is too small a place not to run into mutual friends, and I’m the bad guy. You should see the looks I get. I’d rather get a fresh start.”

“What about your parents?” said Chris. “Have they mellowed at all?”

Dar shook his head. “Not really. I’ve shamed the family. It was no way for a good Egyptian to behave, and so on and so forth.”

“You’ve been to Egypt just the once, haven’t you?”

“That logic escapes them,” said Dar. “Even though I was born here, they’re Egyptian so I’m Egyptian.”

“I’m really sorry,” Chris said. “You know, really. To have things turn chilly with your family at a time like this must make it so much harder.”

“Yes, well, thank goodness I can heap abuse upon you and get it out of my system,” Dar said.

Chris grinned and raised his glass. Dar did likewise and they clinked their glasses. “To abuse,” Chris said.

“To abuse,” Dar repeated. “May it be harsh and rain down often.”

After taking a couple of swallows, Chris raised his glass again and said, “Well, you’ll have a new job in a new city, living in a new condo. To fresh starts.”

“To fresh starts,” Dar agreed.

Those guys toast each other a lot, Jenny observed. It’s kind of sweet how excited they are. Mind you, here’s me sharing a small apartment with Laurie, who wishes I’d move out. Okay, so I guess I’d be excited too.

Carrying a tray laden with several mugs of beer, Jenny was about to pass by their table when…

She stopped dead in her tracks. She wasn’t in the restaurant any more. Instead she was in a large, dark area with a smudge of light a few feet in front of her. Unlike the bustle in the pub, this place, wherever it was, was deadly silent.

“Hello?” she called, tentatively.

Within the light, dust motes danced about, until they began to coalesce, forming… what? It was formless, and yet it wasn’t. Then Jenny felt goose bumps form on her arms and the hair rise on the back of her neck. Her stomach began to churn so that she felt about to vomit. The amorphous cloud of dust became a face, as large as she was tall, with black eyes and yawning maw displaying sharp, many-rowed teeth. The mouth opened even further and the face began to close the distance between them.

That was when Jenny screamed. She screamed loud and long. She was back in the pub and still she screamed, all thoughts of the tray forgotten. Until she heard the sound of glass breaking, the feel of the liquid soaking into her leggings, and someone yelping in surprise. It was one of the two men, the ones celebrating.

Chris was stunned as he witnessed their server first freeze, then scream, and then dump the contents of her tray onto the floor. What missed the floor landed upon poor Dar, who was drenched in beer.

Wiping his face, Dar looked from the server to Chris. “And an auspicious start it is,” he said.

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Assembling a Good Superhero Movie

This post includes major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War

It had no business being a good movie. And yet it was. How did that happen?

I’m talking, of course, about Avengers: Infinity War. My rule of thumb is that, all things being equal, the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to the number of major characters. How many were in this movie? I won’t even try to count.

So why does it work? The key is to listen to the directors’ commentary. In other franchises (let’s leave them anonymous, shall we?), what excites the director is the special effects.

This scene was shot against a green screen / CGI. So was this. And this. Oh, that scene? It was filmed on set. No biggie. But THIS scene, that was green screen / CGI. And so on.

Not surprisingly, while that (anonymous) movie has whiz-bang action and CGI, it isn’t very good. Story and character were pretty much completely overlooked.

In the commentary for Infinity War, what the Russo brothers comment on is story and character. And oddly enough, when the emphasis is on those two things, the end result is pretty good. This is the thing about Infinity War. While I’d argue it wasn’t a great movie, there was greatness in managing to bring all those characters together in a coherent, character-driven story that gave many of the characters interesting development arcs.

The most obvious arc is Thor’s, who picks himself up from his defeat at the hands of Thanos and, by the time he arrives on Earth, has become the king he was meant to be. Groot has a small but satisfying arc in which, after witnessing the sacrifices made by Thor, grows out of his annoying teenage phase and becomes instrumental to Thor’s evolution.

The humour, and there’s plenty of it, is character-based. Peter Parker, with his love of “old” sci-fi movies. Poor clueless Drax who thinks that by being still he becomes invisible. The clash of egos between Tony Stark and Stephen Strange. Then, of course, there’s the culmination of ten years of the MCU, the moment when Rocket meets the Winter Soldier and says, “I’m going to get that arm.”

There are many other precious moments. Pretty much all the scenes with Vision and Wanda, with their new (and apparently, doomed) affection for each other. The reverence with which Peter holds Tony Stark. The moment when Steve Rogers and Thor compare haircuts and beards in the midst of a battle for the universe. When Bruce Banner and Natasha are reunited, scarcely a word is spoken. There’s no need, because their faces say it all.

In the end, it’s the humanity in Infinity War that makes it good, and the reason why we so look forward to End Game.


The Perils of the Second Person

In which a dialogue ensues between author and protagonist. When the author lets slip that the protagonist will die, things go from bad to worse.


You walk into the pub, dimly lit, eighties music playing a little louder than you like.

Yes, I’m walking into a pub. Well done. Wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t said. 

After casting glances left and right, the corners of your mouth turn into a frown. She isn’t here.

What? I didn’t come here to meet anyone. Tonight’s the CFL Eastern Final. 

BE QUIET!

Now where was I? Oh yes. She isn’t here, but it’s early, so you take a seat at the bar where you can keep an eye on the entrance.

More like, so I can keep an eye on the TV. Will you just get out of my head for five minutes? Who the hell are you anyway?

Okay, look. Perhaps we need to establish some boundaries. I’m the author. You’re the protagonist. I tell the story, you act it out. It’s not very complicated.

You’re the… You know, for a while I thought I was crazy because I keep hearing this voice in my head. But you’re the crazy one. I wonder what it means when there’s a voice in your head, but the voice is crazy. 

(Counts down from five and takes a deep breath) You order a Sleeman’s and take a sip.

Actually, no. I’m going to order a Guinness tonight, thank you very much. 

“Pint of Guinness,” you say.

What? No. I said Sleeman’s. You were supposed to order Sleeman’s!

Tonight I feel like Guinness. 

Listen. I’ve carefully plotted out this story, in which the reader gradually comes to understand you as we peel away your defences, layer by layer, until, tragically…

Did you say tragically? 

What? No. Of course not. No spoilers. You have to act out each part as if you’ve no foreknowledge of what’s to come.

So how tragic are we talking about? Are the Redblacks going to lose? 

Um, no. Well, yes. But it’s worse than that.

(Sighs) Okay. The love of your life, the woman of your dreams, arrives in the arms of another man.

This woman you talked about that I’ve never seen before? That woman? 

Yes, dammit, that one. And you have seen her, but it was before this story so you don’t remember. Just like you don’t remember your own name, because I haven’t introduced it yet. Look, just run with it all, okay? Can you do that?

So you think I don’t know that my name is Ethan Black?

(Growls)

I’d like to explore this thing about tragedy some more. So this woman comes in with a man. What’s so tragic? 

Well, it’s more what happens next that’s really tragic.

Which is? 

Oh fine! You march to their table where they’ve already ordered a bottle of wine. You smash the bottle on the mans head, then, with the broken top of the bottle, slit your throat. Happy now?

What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?

I was just thinking. You know what I was thinking?

What?

That I’m going to leave this pub and your crummy story. 

No! You can’t do that. I’m the author. You’re the…

Yes, I know. I’m just the lowly protagonist. Bye. 

You get up, put on your coat, and leave the pub, your glass unfinished on the bar. Moments later, all the patrons turn at the sound of screeching brakes and scream as your broken body is tossed upon the pub window. The screams continue as your corpse slides to the ground, leaving streaks of red in in its wake.

Like I said. Tragic.

(With a satisfied smile, takes story and files it away. Nothing worse than a lippy protagonist.)

Celebrity Encounters

Does it seem to you that fan conventions are becoming ubiquitous? Just about every major city hosts them these days. Although I don’t go every single year, I still find them irresistible. Especially when they host celebrities I’m particularly fond of.

cc2018You can meet a celebrity in one or both of two ways: an autograph signing session or a photo-op. Having a photo with yourself and THAT person can be awesome. Just bear in mind that the encounter will last at best a dozen seconds. Then “poof” it’s over. Another thing is, at least at the cons I’ve been to, they only take one photo. So if you have your eyes closed, well, that’s just unfortunate.

If you want to spend a bit more time with your idol, an autograph session is the way to go. I’ve found that you can often count on getting thirty seconds or so to chit-chat, then it’s on to the next person. But that’s not cast in concrete. It depends on the duration of the session and the length of the line. You might still end up getting just a few seconds. Be mentally prepared.

If you haven’t been to a con before, note that all of this costs money. In some cases quite a bit of money. Prices for photo-ops are typically posted ahead of time. I don’t recall if autograph prices are posted ahead of time or not, and it may depend on who’s hosting and where.

When it comes to physical contact, let the celebrity take the lead. Don’t initiate a handshake or hug or any other form of contact. If they want to shake your hand, they’ll offer it to you.  If you do shake hands, do so lightly. Don’t grip tightly. Which rhymes! Makes it easy to remember.

So, let’s say you have half a minute to talk to the person you’ve waited in line an hour to meet. What do you say? It’s probably not the best idea to blurt out, “I’m your biggest fan,” or something of that ilk. Can you imagine hundreds of people telling you that over a weekend? What saved me the first couple of times was that may name isn’t common in North America, and the conversation would revolve around that. Once or twice, the celebrity and I have smiled awkwardly at each other and that was about it. After that happened, I decided to go in prepared.

What I’ve found that works fairly well is exploring their side projects and discussing these. If someone is the star of a major TV show, but they’ve done some small, independent films, check these out and discuss. Or perhaps you’ve found out they support a particular charity. Or maybe they’ve been on stage.

You have to decide what works for you, but I think its best to go prepared to discuss something other than the obvious. Or to ask about trivia from a particular episode. Or, if the show has been canceled, asking if they would return to the role someday. (Hello, Firefly fans!)

Of course, there’s a lot more to cons than the celebrities. You’ll often find row upon row of booths with merchandise, books, you name it. There are comic book artists, authors, and you may find the odd Dalek or Storm Trooper doing the rounds. And of course, attendee cosplay is an attraction in and of itself.

If you haven’t been, do check them out. They’re great fun. You’ll find people of all ages and backgrounds there. People who just want to geek out with their friends for a couple of days. What more could you ask for?

 

What’s Old has become New

During the 80’s, I never gave A-ha much thought. To me, they were YASB (Yet Another Synth Band), notable mostly for their the groundbreaking music video, “Take On Me”.

Then I saw Deadpool 2 and heard an arresting, acoustic version of “Take On Me”, and I was lost. Not only was this version of the song mesmerizing in its own right, it fit the movie perfectly.

aha-cover-900x900px

In short order, I found that the song was one of a set of re-worked songs on A-ha’s recent album, MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice. I haven’t finished the album yet, but I’m already in love, particularly with the lovely acoustic version of “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”

What’s old has become new.

This is encouraging because, I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly hard to find music that excites me. Odd, considering how many choices there are out there. Music stream services have, how many songs? Lots. Lots and lots. But finding music that appeals to you can still be a challenge.

Movie soundtracks are becoming a great way to discover music. There are some great songs on the Lost in Translation soundtrack, for example. And don’t get me started about the Lord of the Rings soundtracks. For me, it was love at first sight. Trivia note: Howard Shore, the LotR composer, was once part of Lighthouse, a popular Canadian band in the 70’s, which I was also very fond of.

Meanwhile, I’m planning to sit back and give A-ha’s unplugged album a few listens.