All posts by SelimPensFiction

Public Transit Done Right.

A while ago, I wrote a posted entitled “Do Me a Solid“. It was a passing tribute to those products that just work. It seems there just aren’t enough of those around these days.

I’ve always been a fan of public transit. Here in Ottawa, it works fairly well if you live in the west end of the city and work downtown. There are bus lanes on the highway and bus-only transit ways to speed you on your way. During rush hour, buses run every few minutes. Parking downtown is very expensive. The bus, while not cheap, is cheaper and it gives you an opportunity to get some fresh air and see new faces. And, given rush hour traffic, you can often reach your destination faster than by driving.

So, public transit in Ottawa works fairly well, but those who live in the east end, or those that live in the city and work in the west end wouldn’t exactly describe it as “solid”.

1280px-Zuerich_Hauptbahnhof-2This summer I spent a few days in Zurich, Switzerland. Now there is a public transit system that is solid in every way. Their public transit is based on trams that connect to the central train station. At each tram station, there’s an automated ticket dispenser that supports English, German, French and Italian. A series of on-screen choices guides you to the ticket you want. Frequently requested tickets, such as to the Zurich airport, are right on the home screen. You can pay with credit card, or, since Switzerland widely supports tap-and-pay, you can use your smart phone. Overhead displays count down the minutes until the next tram’s arrival.

Trams run frequently and efficiently and on time. Just like a Swiss watch. So do trains. It’s surprisingly easy to find your way around the Zurich train station and it’s 30+ tracks. Yellow schedule boards, valid for twelve months, give you all the information you need, sorted by time. So, you can look up the next train for Lucerne that leaves on or after 10 AM, for example.

We had Swiss travel passes that gave us access to trams, trains and some museums and tours. We just had to show up and board. Once in a while, inspectors show up to verify your passes.

To sum up, the Swiss public transportation system is a joy to use. It just works.
It’s solid.

Oh yes. The scenery’s pretty nice too.


Going Off Script

Writing the script for an audio play is an interesting experience. I’d never done it before. The sum total of my fiction writing consists of short stories in the traditional form, original and fanfiction, and one novel currently in progress (it’s been in progress for quite some time, but that’s another story). 

The thing about an audio script is that there’s no narrator. Well, I guess there could be, but in my script there was none. And there’s no descriptive text. Nothing, really, but dialog and place holders for sound effects. Those are the tools at your disposal. 

Dialog becomes subtly different. Sometimes characters have to talk to themselves when they are alone in a scene, otherwise the listener would have no idea what was going on. When more than one character is present, you sometimes have to include descriptions of surroundings that, in TV or movies, would require only a camera shot to give you the information you need. 

“Look at that!”

“It’s a wall of metal. I’ve never seen one so tall.”

You get the idea. 

This may be why I’ve always found the book, TV and movie adaptations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy unstatisfying. The script was originally written for an audio play. So when Arthur Dent screeches, “What the hell is that!?” And Ford Prefect calmly answers, “It’s a fleet of flying saucers”, that works on audio. In a visual medium, the camera would simply show you a fleet of flying saucers. For me, it’s the original audio version that’s the real McCoy.  

Last year I was invited to contribute a script to what would have been a series of Doctor Who fanfiction audio dramas. That series never materialized and was presumably lost in the Time Vortex. Still, writing it was tremendous fun and now I’m pleased to add that script to the collection of fanfiction on this site. Click on “FanFiction” at the top of this page, then on “Resurgence of the Cybermen”. 

A Cacophony of Caskett Heartbreak

There’s a TV show called Castle. It’s quite popular and is in its eighth season. I’ve written a few fanfiction stories set in the Castle universe.

If you are aware of the show, then you might be aware of the explosion of outrage on the Internet over the release of two of the actors who have been part of the show since the beginning: Stana Katic, who played Detective Kate Beckett, and Tamala Jones, who played Dr. Lanie Parish. If there is a season 9 (unknown at the time of writing), they won’t be in the cast.

Applicable Twitter hashtags include: #Castle, #IStandWithStana, #SaveCaskett, and #NoStanaNoCastle.

Tamala Jones will be missed as hers is a strong female character, still an oddity in 21st century media, and is a medical examiner to boot. Her character has had an on again, off again relationship with Javier Esposito, has lobbed more than a few zingers in Castle’s direction, and has served as a confidante for Beckett. If there is no Beckett, however, there is less need for Parish.

As for Stana Katic, in the beginning, her character viewed Castle as an irritant. Over the course of time, their mutual trust and respect grew, and they found themselves falling in love, even if one or the other wasn’t prepared to admit it. Finally, they were engaged and then married.

Stana-Nathan-nathan-fillion-and-stana-katic-26237395-542-594What’s been so engaging about the Beckett-Castle relationship is the apparent chemistry between the two actors, and the range of emotions they display so unerringly. They are, truly, a very cute couple. This relationship is a key anchor point for many viewers, who have immensely enjoyed the show over the years.

Here’s the thing, though. While the Beckett-Castle relationship has been a great story, there comes a time when a story has been told, and whatever follows is simply potboiling. That’s not to say there aren’t necessarily more Castle stories, but really, what else could you do with the Beckett-Castle relationship other than an endless cycle of bringing them together, separating them on some pretext or other, then bringing them together again.

If I was writing for Castle, I’d be chaffing at the bit to tell some different types of stories. In an effort to shake things up, they had Castle disappear for a few months (over the summer break, mind you) and reappear with his mind wiped. I found that to be a very weak storyline. Similarly, this season, Beckett left Castle so that he wouldn’t become a casualty in her investigation of the death of her former colleagues. And yet, they still saw each other every week. Inevitably, after the Christmas break, Castle and Beckett got back together again.

Let’s consider another show that I enjoy, Doctor Who. While the show was off the air for a number of years, it recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. What is it that keeps it going? A simple answer might be that it has all of space and time for its characters to explore, but its more than that. Characters come and characters go, no matter how beloved. The Doctor, the central character, has remained, but every three or four years a new actor takes the part. What keeps a series fresh is change. Fresh actors, fresh storylines, fresh villains.

If Castle is to continue with strong stories, and not just potboilers, it needs to change as well. One very pleasant surprise this season is the development of Castle’s daughter, Alexis, played by Molly Quinn, as an adult foil for her father. I can easily imagine some great stories centred around Richard Castle, P.I., working and trading witticisms with two strong women, Alexis and the intriguing Hayley Shipton, played by Toks Olagundoye. Why not?

So let’s put things in perspective. There was no “Caskett” in the early years, yet we watched the show. Personally, I preferred the battle of the sexes feel of those years. It put me in mind of the old Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn films.

Be that as it may, if you can’t imagine Castle without “Caskett”, there’s a simple solution. First, turn off the TV. Much simpler and less work than advocating cancelling the show. Second, read/write some AU fanfiction in which they’re kissing and making babies and solving mysteries and living happily ever after.

As for me, if season 9 happens, I’m certainly going to give it a try.

Too Many Fingers

If you’ve been part of a software development and/or engineering team, you’ll understand the concept of unity of purpose. The same principle, it turns out, applies to writing.

They say there are many roads that lead to Rome. If Rome represents the product you want to build, beit a smartphone app, some new whiz-bang hardware, or, let’s say, a story, there’s more than one path you can take to get there. That’s fine if you’re traveling solo. But if you’re part of a team, and different voices are calling out to take this path or that other one or that other other one, it can be a problem. You can end up with a product that looks like the equivalent of a Reaver ship, a cacophony of parts that kinda-sorta work together, but that were never meant to be components of the same whole.

This is why development teams have an architect. This isn’t someone who designs buildings. Well, it can be if what you’re building is, you know, a building. The product architect is someone whose vision of the product carries the day. There can only be one vision, and the team has to buy into this vision. Otherwise, what you end up with is a mess.

The word “mess” has been used more than once to describe a couple of recent superhero movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. The problem with both of these? Among others, too many characters. Too many future movie plotlines to set up.
Dawn of Justice
also suffers from too reaction-to-second-batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-trailer-737594
many plots grafted together, too much left out, too many unanswered questions. Why did we need to borrow from both“The Dark Knight Returns” and “Death of Superman” storylines? Each was a major story arc in and of itself and could have carried a movie.

The interesting question is, why do these films suffer from these shortcomings?

ultronThe (likely) answer: Too many fingers in the pie. While these films do have an architect (Joss
Whedon, Zack Snyder) the studios at some level placed too many constraints on the films. Rather
than being allowed to tell a coherent story and tell it well, let’s throw in a few new characters that we want to develop in future movies. Let’s introduce elements that we’re going to explore in future movies. Let’s have more than the last move: bigger, faster, louder.

This was likely one of the reasons the Bond film Quantum of Solace fell short. Forget about telling a compelling story. We need more action that the last film. More chase scenes. And so you end up with a film that has car chases, foot chases, boat chases, and plane chases. Indeed, they seem to have covered all the bases, and the movie is all the poorer as a result. Contrast that with the subsequent Skyfall, perhaps the best Bond ever, where the set pieces and action were driven by the story rather than the other way around.

So what does all this have to do with writing? (Let’s leave screenwriters out for the moment.) After all, most stories are written by only one or maybe two authors. The relevance is that a story has to have a coherent thread driving it forward. Sure, there are supporting characters, several of which can have arcs of their own, but these have to fit together into a coherent whole. You can’t just wander off willy nilly and explore every neat idea. Probably better to keep a “neat idea” file, and to keep your story lean and to the point.

This topic slides into another: How much is too much? By that I mean, I’m not a big fan of filler, even if it’s filler that doesn’t distract from the overall plot. I love a good, thick book as much as the next guy, and I’ve read some series where each book was a door stopper, and yet, I’ve been pretty sure that these stories could have been told with far fewer, thinner books.

It’s a trade off. On the one hand, it can be a real pleasure immerse yourself in the minutia of a new world. On the other hand, you can find yourself wishing the author would just get to the point. Personally, I’m becoming nostalgic for the days when the average novel seemed to be on the order of 200 pages, or even less.

Less, after all, can be more, which applies to both novel length and the number of fingers in the pie.

The Horror!

Horror has changed.

Once upon a time, on a dark and story night, horror was Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, or Dracula. Or all three.

When I was a kid, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was on TV one afternoon while my mother was ironing. I was able to stick with it until Lawrence Talbot spied a full moon and, well, you know what came next.

abbottcostellofrankenstein“MOM!” I screeched. “Change the channel.”

She dutifully did so, switching to a soap opera. After a while I calmed down and begged her to go back to the movie. I was fine then, at least until Talbot’s next transformation.

“MOM! Change the channel!”

I loved it. Loved getting scared right to death. And I still do to this day.

When I was in my early teens, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, and immediately fell in love. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath remains one of my favourite books. How could you not be scared when the Old Gods were after you? Or when rubbery, foul-smelling, ameboid-shaped abominations poked and prodded you as you descended fitfully to the Dream World and left your sanity behind, one step at a time?

As I started to wonder about writing horror fiction, and I read some horror anthologies and sources such as Nightmare magazine, I started to think about what constitutes horror fiction today. It occurred to me that horror has changed. It’s not so much about monsters in the dark any more. There may well be monsters in the dark, but the real horror is what those humans trapped in the house do to each other while the monsters lurk outside.

The classic modern example is TV’s The Walking Dead, a show brilliant in its writing and acting, but so dark and bleak that I stopped watching around the third season. Yes, there are zombies all about, but even as the world falls apart around their ears, people are still hungry for power, for the chance to one-up each other, and as ever, there are romantic triangles.

The idea, I think, is that when horror exists, we discover some truth about ourselves, something we prefer not to think about, a quality better left unspoken. And man, that’s frightening. 

Protagonist Purgatory

Hi folks,

I’ve added a new, original story to the site. You can find it by selecting “Original Fiction” near the top, then selecting “Protagonist Purgatory“. It’s a sequel of sorts to “Where the Dragons Sleep” and “The Right Time” but can be read independently. It attempts to be light-hearted. Whether it succeeds is for you to decide.

If you’re squeamish about strong language, best stay away. Once of the characters drops the F-Bomb pretty much every time he opens his mouth. But we’ve all known that guy, haven’t we?

Here’s a quick excerpt:

“What?” said Dromhiller. “You saw a dragon?”

Michael nodded. “It flew overhead just a little while ago.”

“Well, that’s more like it,” Dromhiller said. “Now I’ve something to look forward to.”

“So there were dragons in your story?”

“Sure. Well, at least until I killed them. You?”

“No dragons,” said Michael. “There was a unicorn, though. And a few other magical creatures.”

Dromhiller laughed out loud and nearly choked. “A unicorn! You’ve got to be kidding me. Didn’t appear until the end of the story, though, did it?”

“Right at the start, actually,” Michael said. “Then again towards the end.”

Dromhiller, doubled over with laughter, stopped. Catching his breath, he said, “A ******* unicorn! Right at the start. Let me guess. Story didn’t sell, did it?”


A Golden Age of Doctor Who

It was the summer of 1966. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass won Record of the Year that year with “A Taste of Honey”. Audiences flocked to the movies to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Batman: The Movie. In a couple of months Star Trek would make its television debut.

I was a kid that summer and it was my first trip to England. As we crowded around the black and white TV set in my aunt and uncle’s living room, with it’s scratchy, fuzzy picture and tinny sound, the TARDIS materialized in a desert. A man and woman exited the TARDIS, followed by the Doctor. William Hartnell, the first Doctor. My first Doctor.

Taking the woman by the hand, the man said, “Come on, we’ll find our own way back to London.”

“Fools!” said the Doctor, and went back inside.

That’s the only scene I remember from that episode. Maybe that’s all I saw. But I was hooked. This was very cool stuff. The Doctor scared the hell out of me, even though I gathered he was the good guy.

The Peter Cushing movie, Dalek’s Invasion Earth 2150 AD, was playing in England that summer. It was in colour and included Daleks of every colour of the rainbow. Not only did I love the Daleks in and of themselves, but they flew in flying saucers! I was too young to realize just how profoundly stupid the movie was. (A greater sin by far is it’s unbearable soundtrack.) At the time it just seemed very cool, and I have fond memories of it to this day.

This was actually the second Doctor Who feature film. Later, my family caught the first one, also starring Peter Cushing as “Doctor Who”, at a drive-in sometime later. And, for me, that was about it for the good Doctor until TV Ontario acquired the rights in the early ‘70’s. The first episode of Doctor Who to air was the first of the multi-Doctor episodes, “The Three Doctors”. TVO had a guy, Doctor Dator (real name), who introduced the episodes, provided background we might be missing, and gave us some food for thought.

The Three Doctors 1But with “The Three Doctors”, we come to the crux of the problem with classic Doctor Who. It was profoundly unwatchable by anyone over, say, eleven years old. Why? It might have something to do with the scripts, the acting, the sets and the special effects, but to name but a few things. You can find fan videos on YouTube of higher quality than many episodes of classic Who.

To be fair, Doctor Who was produced with little budget and probably less time. I recall an interview with John Cleese who said something like, “British television is terrible. If you finish, [your production] that’s cause for celebration. If it’s good, well that’s something else altogether.” Still, one can only go by the end product, and the end product was not good.

Nevertheless, I continued to watch it. Why? For me, it was the rich backstory. Time Lords, an ancient race whose citizens could regenerate a new body. The TARDIS, with a small exterior and an essentially infinite interior that existed in a different dimension. That darned chameleon circuit that got stuck in the shape of a police box. The Daleks. The Cybermen. All of that.

I was fond of the first four actors to play the Doctor and the unique, perfect personalities they brought to the part. But then, for me, things started to go from bad to worse. Peter Davison came along and although I’d loved his work on All Creatures Great and Small, I thought he was miscast here. The 6th and 7th Doctors, I felt at the time, were simply embarrassments. I could scarcely bear to watch them. In retrospect, I came to realize that this was unfair. They were fine actors; the problem was with the source material. I stopped watching regularly sometime during Peter Davison’s reign. Sporadically I’d tune in, but was always disappointed. And it seems that the public agreed, because the ratings slid to the point where the BBC finally cancelled the show in 1989.

I read a fair number of Doctor Who books in the years that followed. Some of them were surprisingly well written and complex. I remember being blown away by “The Infinity Doctors” in particular.

The good Doctor sputtered to life briefly in 1996 in a one-shot made-for-TV movie. This was a British-American collaboration that just didn’t work. Unfortunate because Paul McGann was a great Doctor and he was very popular. Can anyone count how many times he’s reprised the role in Big Finish audio dramas? Do you remember how the Internet melted down following his surprise appearance in “The Night of the Doctor”?

Then we come to 2005, and the rebirth of the series. Russell T. Davies brought to the screen an invigorated Doctor Who that was good in every respect. Good scripts, good acting, interesting stories, and arcs that spanned the whole of a series. Are you afraid of the big Bad Wolf? My favourite scene in the ten plus years since Doctor Who’s return is when Rose looks into the heart of the TARDIS, into the Time Vortex itself, and returns the TARDIS to the future to rescue the Doctor.

Davies gave us the Time War and introduced us to Rose Tyler and Captain Jack Harkness, two of the most beloved characters in the series. And he reintroduced a new, young, sharp-tongued Master. Most of all, he saved Doctor Who from oblivion. So, when Steven Moffat was announced as the new showrunner, he had big shoes to fill.

But fill them he did, bringing us to what I would argue is the golden age of Doctor Who. How did he do that? I think there are three dimensions to his success: the stories, the characters, and the dialog.

Let’s consider these in order, starting with stories.

Moffat had already penned two of the most beloved Doctor Who episodes: “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink”. Just a few years ago, FilmCritHulk wrote an essay, WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH DR. WHO, in which he said of “Blink”, “ONE OF THE BEST HOURS OF TELEVISION. PERIOD.” (FilmCritHulk writes in all caps, because, well, HULK.) Like much of his writing, this essay is literate, insightful, and entertaining. Stop and read it if you haven’t.

Moffat brought us the brilliantly conceived, multi-series spanning River Song story arc. It all began with the Davies-era episodes  “The Silence of the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”. Here the Doctor meets River for the first time. For River, it’s the last time. As she’s about to sacrifice herself, she realizes that, through the whole of her relationship with the Doctor, he’s known how she’s going to die. What a moment.

And then there’s the two-parter that kicked off Series 6: “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon”. Here Moffat raised the show to new heights with a complex, dense story, the likes of which Doctor Who had never seen. Steven Moffat clearly isn’t one to underestimate the audience. And what can you say about the Silence, the scariest things we’d seen since, well, that other Moffat creation, the Weeping Angels. At the end of the two-parter, we were left with our jaws dropping as a young child begins to regenerate.

the-night-of-the-doctor-regeneration-elixir.pngIn “Name of the Doctor”, we were floored again when we learned that there was a previously unmentioned incarnation of the Doctor in between the 8th and the 9th. Then there was the seven minutes of sheer genius that was “Night of the Doctor”, in which Paul McGann reprised the role of the 8th Doctor. But “Name of the Doctor” and “Night of the Doctor” were just the buildup to the already classic 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor”. The War Doctor, along with the 10th and 11th Doctors, come together, and in saving Earth from the Zygons, they discover the key to saving Gallifrey from the Daleks.

What about characters? Steven Moffat has given us some wonderful, fleshed out characters. Let’s start with River Song, Amy & Rory, and their complex relationship. River, the daughter of Amy and Rory, grew up with them. They were all children together (time travel — you’ve got to love it). And then there’s everyone’s favourite Victorian trinity, Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax. The hilarious thing is, among the other hilarious things, that Victorian Londoners are more concerned with the fact that Vastra is a woman than that she’s a Silurian.

And what about Clara? Yes, well… Clara’s not so clear cut. I think the “impossible girl” arc was a bit forced. Possibly Moffat was under some pressure to follow up on the highly successful River Song arc. But still, Clara turned out be the companion most able to play doctor about as well as the Doctor himself. That was her arc, bringing her from babysitter to time traveller in her own stolen TARDIS with an immortal companion.

Let’s not forget Missy, without a doubt the most delightful incarnation of the Master in the history of the show. In this incarnation, she seems to characterize herself as a mischievous close friend to the Doctor rather than his arch enemy, and she brings out some of Moffat’s most witty writing.

Which is a nice segway to the third dimension of Doctor Who’s current success: dialog.  

It’s well worth watching Moffat-written episodes a second time as brilliant lines are tossed about so quickly it’s easy to miss them the first time. Consider this bit from “The Witch’s Familiar” in which Clara and Missy discuss the problem of rescuing the Doctor. It might not be the most ingenious bit of dialog he’s written, but it’s the tone and wit that sticks with me (see what I did there?).

“He’s trapped at the heart of the Dalek empire,” said Missy. “He’s a prisoner of the creatures who hate him most in the universe. Between us and him is everything the deadliest race in all of history can throw at us. We, on the other hand, have a pointy stick. How do we start?”

“We assume we’re going to win,” said Clara.

“Oh. Pity, really. I was actually quite peckish.”

“Can I have a stick too?” Clara asked.

“Make your own stick.”

What else was it that FilmCritHulk said about Steven Moffat? Oh yes: “STEVEN MOFFAT IS A GENIUS — SOMETIMES IT IS THAT SIMPLE.”

There are other factors in Doctor Who’s current success, of course. Success, it became quickly apparent, breeds success. As the newfound quality of the show became apparent, they were able to attract A-tier talent. Neil Gaiman was brought on board to pen “The Doctor’s Wife”, an episode that was an immediate classic. Carey Mulligan was the lead actor in “Blink”. Game of Throne’s Maisie Williams played Ashildr for several episodes of series 9. David Tennant, an actor with the chops to play a critically acclaimed Hamlet, was hired to play the Doctor.

Even if Steven Moffat is a genius, genius isn’t constant. Not everything under Moffat’s watch has been golden. Series 8 was weak all around in my opinion, though the show rebounded strongly in series 9. The episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” wasn’t penned by Moffat but was produced on his watch. I thought this episode was ridiculous. So, Clara is lost in the TARDIS and the Doctor can’t just ask the TARDIS where she is? The TARDIS is essentially infinite in size, so what exactly is gained by having a couple more people look for her. And scavengers at that. Seriously? Of course they’re going to misbehave.

Ah well.

Doctor Who has never enjoyed such storytelling, characterization, acting, sparkling dialog, and all around fun. Steven Moffat has one series left, then its up to Chris Chibnall.

He’s going to have some big shoes to fill.