All posts by SelimPensFiction

Online Communities

The COVID-19 pandemic affects all of us. Physical distancing guidelines mean we stay at home except for runs to the grocery and drug store. Physical distancing doesn’t necessarily mean social distancing, however. Not completely.

Software such as Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and others, allow you to interact visually with people from, well, anywhere. Emails, messaging apps, and social media such as Facebook and Instagram also allow us to keep in touch.

It’s not the same, though, is it? Of course, it can’t be, not even if we had Star Trek-like holographic communicators. It’s no substitute for being in the same space with someone. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and we’re lucky that we live in an age where so many means of communication are open to us.

It fascinates me how Twitter has come into its own during this crisis, and has allowed communities to interact with one another in real time. By community, I mean groups of people with shared interests, no matter where they are in the world.

I often write about Doctor Who, and those who enjoy the show and its spin-off media are certainly a kind of community, one which has been very active these past weeks. Emily Cook (@Emily_Rosina), of Doctor Who Magazine fame, has organized several global Doctor Who watch-alongs. She selects an episode, sets up a time, and everyone starts watching at the same time and can contribute to a Twitter dialog. She’s managed to snag previous showrunners Stephen Moffat and Russell T. Davies, and many cast members, including David Tennant and Matt Smith. TardisMonkey (@tardis_monkey) has done the same with some notable “classic” Doctor Who episodes, including “The Five Doctors” and the upcoming watch-along, “The Three Doctors”.

Lily May Sherratt (@IreneWildthyme) has organized some listen-alongs with content from Big Finish Productions. Among these were the four Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trips, including “Forever Fallen”, “Landbound”, “Last Day at Work”, and “The Best-Laid Plans”, with live Twitter commentary from the authors, including yours truly. Big Finish themselves recently organized a global listen-along to the Eighth Doctor story, “The Chimes of Midnight”.

There are other types of community projects. For example, for the past few weeks, seven authors of Big Finish Short Trips have collaborated on a Doctor Who fan fiction story, one tweet at a time. With a couple of weeks to go, we’ve just topped 1,000 words. Almost surprisingly, the story is working out pretty well. I say “almost surprisingly” because there’s been no coordinated plotting, and none of us has any idea what will come from a given day’s tweet. It’s been a fascinating experiment in minimalistic writing, because you need to keep your word count down while moving the story forward in some way. All in 280 characters. Look out for the hashtag, #WhoFicTweets.

Aside from being an interesting exercise in collaboration, particularly as I’ve never collaborated with other writers before, I find it’s given me a nice feeling of connection with the other writers. And in these times, we can use all the connections that we can get.

I would urge you, if you’re at wits end during this extended period of lockdown, to seek out community members with similar interests and engage in some activity, be it a creative endeavour or not. Don’t disparage the notion of online friends and colleagues. There are a bunch of people that I’ve “met” online, through writing fan fiction or in the world of Doctor Who, and I’ve enjoyed these relationships very much.

There’s many rewards to be had in the social media space. Just, you know, stay away from the trolls.

The Timeless Children

This (rambling exercise that bears little resemblance to an) essay is about Doctor Who and, in particular, the revelations in the final episode of Season 12. So,

  1. SPOILERS
  2. If you’re not interested in Doctor Who, then I’d suggest waiting until my next post.

So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts and questions.

First, overall impressions. I’m glad they’ve removed the twelve regeneration limit. Given the potential longevity of the show, future writers will be thanking Chris Chibnall. As long time viewers of the show will know, the fact that the Doctor had many lives prior to William Hartnell’s incarnation was first put out there in The Brain of Morbius. But the fact that the Doctor is as old as Time Lord society, older in fact, means that there’s all sorts of room for new kinds of stories in the future, and this is a good thing.

Are you concerned about continuity and canon? Don’t be. Given that we’re dealing with a time traveller, and that within the show time can be rewritten, I share the view of the TARDIS Wikia that there is, in fact, no canon.

This is such a major change for the Doctor Who universe that it surprises me they didn’t save it for the 60th anniversary. Unless they’re going to use that occasion to change everything (again) and bring back Gallifrey (again). How might they do that? I can think of a simple way. But let’s leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Is Tecteun still alive? If so, what’s he/she up to? No one said that she/he limited herself/himself to 12 regenerations.

We all know that the Time Lords are Gallifreyan, but I’ve wondered whether all Gallifreyans are also Time Lords. Now we’ve learned that they are not, and that the ability to regenerate was restricted to those who lived in the Citadel. That seems pretty elitist and it’s hard to imagine how witholding this from the general population wouldn’t have resulted in revolution.

I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of the Sasha Dhawan Master. But, then, this is the Master we’re talking about. Certain death is never all that certain with him/her. Besides, after re-watching his last scene with subtitles on, it sounds like he had a contingency in case the Doctor (or Ko Sharmus as it turned out) actually used the death particle.

We’d previously understood that the ability to regenerate came from the Time Lords prolonged exposure to the vortex over millennia. Now we know it’s actually due to genetic manipulation. That means, possibly, that the race that spawned the Doctor came to be able to regenerate after their long term exposure to the vortex.

What’s next? If I were the Doctor, I’d be headed for the planet where Tecteun found me. If they don’t pursue that angle on the show, it would be nice to have the Doctor to visit places where she’s remembered but she has no memory of having been there.

I love Jodi Whittaker’s Doctor, but we really really need to see more of the Jo Martin Doctor.

The only thing that bothered me about the episode is the scene with the death particle where the Doctor is seemingly faced with two untenable alternatives. She faced the same dilemma on the last day of the Time War: Destroy Gallifrey or let the universe burn. But this time, she can’t do it, presumably to avoid sinking to the level of the Master. So why does she agree to hand it off to Ko Sharmus then leap for the nearest TARDIS? Why is that okay?

In Defence of Fan Fiction

I’ve increasingly noticed that, when someone doesn’t like what’s been done with their favourite fandom, they might liken the offending episode to fan fiction. And not in a good way. In a dismissive way, in fact, as if fan fiction is something to be avoided at all costs if you are at all discerning of quality.

This is a very facile put-down, and reflects more on the commentator than on the body of fan fiction works. What does the put-down actually mean? What is it about fan fiction that they are referring to? If it’s a perceived bent towards fan service, well, it’s fan fiction, isn’t it? The ending of Game of Thrones angered a lot of people and was considered by some to be a bad idea. (Not unlike the creation of the Universe in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). This is because it was not what many fans were expecting or hoping for. Is there anything wrong with that? Are media creators required to take a poll and shape their stories accordingly? I really hope not. The thing is, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain when a story goes in an unexpected direction, and then dismiss another story as fan servicing. Fan fiction is all about making stories that fans would love to see. Things like romantic liaisons between characters, and weird and wonderful crossovers. Where else would you see Star Trek crossovers with Harry Potter, or Castle crossovers with Firefly?

Those who treat fan fiction dismissively might be referring to the perceived quality of stories and/or writing. They might say that 90% of fan fiction is junk. In this they would be right. But I refer you to Sturgeon’s Law. Science Fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon famously said that 90% of everything is junk: TV shows, movies, books, you name it. I’ve read some remarkable fan fiction, stories that I wish could have been made into “canon”. And I’ve known some fan fiction writers (*cough*) who evolved into pretty good writers over time. For instance, a Doctor Who fan fiction writer I’ve corresponded with many times, Ichabod Ebenezer, has gone on to win a short story contest and has had a story commercially published in an anthology. His first novel is available on Amazon. Writing fan fiction gives you an opportunity to improve your craft while becoming part of a friendly community.

In fact, there’s a lot to love about fan fiction, so before you use the term in a disparaging way, dive into it a bit. There are thousands of stories available on fanfiction.net and AO3. You’ll find that at least 10% of what’s out there are real gems.

A Conventional Weekend

Thanksgiving. A time for family, turkey, and… Doctor Who? Well, yes if you’re in the Chicago area. Last weekend was the American Thanksgiving weekend, and concurrent with those celebrations, Chicago TARDIS led a celebration of all things Doctor Who.

The convention was celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and that is oddly appropriate as this was also the 20th anniversary of the first Doctor Who audio from Big Finish.

Big Finish was present in a big way. They had a large booth in the centre of the vendors’ area, with an uncountable number of CDs and box sets. Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery was present at the booth, as was Sue Cowley, whose role, if I recall correctly, is digital asset manager at Big Finish. Jason also ran a daily Big Finish session. The first featured Rhianne Starbuck, who had worked with Tom Baker on a fourth Doctor adventure, Doctor Who: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume 01. The second session included Paul McGann, the eighth Doctor, and the third brought in just about everyone associated with Big Finish.

I enjoyed many of the sessions and panels. Of particular interest, I found, was a session in which Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy interviewed each other, then took questions from the audience. Another was where Arthur Darvill provided live commentary on the episode, “The Angels Take Manhattan”. This was apparently the first time he’d seen the episode since working on it. Asked who was his favourite character in Doctor Who, he said “River Song. She gets all the best lines.” He also said that he didn’t wish to resume playing Rory as he and Amy had had a perfect ending, and to add to that would, in his view, diminish that ending. Personally, I think there’s room for many more Amy and Rory stories, but that’s certainly a fair point of view.

The knowledge and love of the fans for Doctor Who was quite extraordinary. I freely confess that, compared to the average attendee, my knowledge of Doctor Who falls into the category of rank amateur. For not only is the TV version of Who 56 years old (minus a few years of hiatus), but there are innumerable books, comics and audios, and somehow, attendees seemed to have more than a passing familiarity with many of them. I still don’t know how they do it.

There was a wedding at the convention, on the Saturday night, I think. And then, to my surprise, the happy couple showed up for work the following day. In another case, a woman thanked the organizers because she’d met her husband of four years at this convention. It also seemed that many friendships had been struck here, and that people come year after year in part to renew those acquaintances. Nice to see how a convention like this can bring people together.

The convention is held in a hotel, with various meeting rooms used for panels, vendors, and artists. It’s oddly informal, as you might find Arthur Darvill waiting for an elevator, or catch one of the guests chatting in the lobby. I ran into Rhianne Starbuck in the corridor and we had a short but nice chat, comparing notes about the north of England. Still, I had to wonder what the regular hotel guests made of the whole thing, with cosplayers, Daleks and K-9 roaming the halls.

Of course, there’s time for a chat with the guests at their autograph sessions. I met Paul McGann and Katy Manning this way. Paul McGann was fully engaged with his fans, and seemed genuinely pleased to have the chance to meet them. And as for Katy Manning, well, there are no words. She was sweet as can be, giving everyone hugs and taking a real interest in everyone. I might have let slip to both of them that I’d written a couple of Short Trips for Big Finish, and this sparked a lovely conversation with them.

This was my first Chicago TARDIS and I wasn’t disappointed. There was so much going on that you had to be choosy, so actually, my only disappointment was that I couldn’t be in two places at once. It’s quite a testament to the history of Doctor Who that so many activities can be set up over three days, and that so many fans would congregate here to compare notes and express their love of the show. You can’t help but leave exhilarated. I don’t expect that this will be my last visit to Chicago TARDIS.

On the Release of Battle Scars

My second short story for Big Finish, Doctor Who – Short Trips: Battle Scars, has been released.

To be completely honest, I’m still high as a kite.

The whole thing started very shortly after Alfie Shaw took over as producer of the Short Trips range. I believe this was in April of 2018. In fact, I had just finished listening to an interview with him on the podcast when he contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in doing another story for Big Finish.

I didn’t have to think about this for very long.

He gave me a one or two sentence “brief”. The story would cover a famous gap in Doctor Who history, revealed in the first Ninth Doctor episode, “Rose”. Clive shows Rose a photo of the Daniels family of Southampton plus “friend”. The friend is obviously the Doctor. The family was meant to have sailed on the Titanic but didn’t. Alfie left the whys and wherefores, and basically the entirety of the story, up to me.

As usual, the first step was to write a one page synopsis and seek the approval of the BBC. This took a while, longer than it did for Landbound, but then this was during the transition between Steven Moffat’s team and Chris Chibnall’s. To my surprise, the BBC rejected the original title, which I won’t reveal. We had to come up with a new one. To be honest, I really liked the original title and my attempts to come up with an alternative were probably half-hearted. I had nothing. Finally, Alfie saved the day and suggested “Battle Scars” which fit perfectly.

At first I was going to make Arthur (the father) the Doctor’s main companion. Then I decided it would be more interesting to tell the story from Connie’s point of view. I love Connie. She reminds me of the precocious boy in the movie, Mr. Holmes, who basically rules the roost. In order to better explore the after-effects of war, Arthur is a veteran of the Second Boer War. Later in development, I made William Spence a veteran as well. Two life-long friends driven apart by the war.

Arthur is in the shipping industry to reinforce the theme of the Titanic lurking ominously just out of sight. And, I reasoned, Arthur’s contacts would have helped him score tickets to the Titanic, which must have been in high demand. The Doctor’s driving his fist through the hull of Arthur’s ship is meant to conjure in your mind what the iceberg did to the Titanic.

After three or four drafts, the story was done. Nicholas Briggs recorded the narration in November. From his comments on the podcast, I believe he recorded Harry Draper’s The Last Day at Work on the same day. And, as also mentioned on the podcast, he was just back from last year’s Chicago TARDIS and was still quite jet lagged. Mr. Briggs, it seems, has far more energy than do I.

On August 30th, as I was getting ready for bed, I thought I would check, just in case Battle Scars was available. And to my delight it was! I sat down to listen to it for the first time. Nicholas Briggs is an amazing actor. For a short story, Battle Scars has a lot of characters. He brought each one to life beautifully. I’m so lucky that he was able to narrate both of my Big Finish stories. The production focusses on the narration, providing thoughtful music in between scenes and sound effects that support the story. I loved it. It was everything I’d hoped for and more.

Once again, working with an editor was marvellous. Alfie was a great sounding board and he wisely warned me away from some wrong turns. With his guidance and helpful suggestions, the story ended up much stronger than it would have been.

You have to hand it to the Doctor Who fandom. There’s nothing like it. In any other genre, publishing a story might result in the odd tweet, a handful of reviews, and that would be it. But when Big Finish publishes your Doctor Who story, the Internet lights up with congratulations and thoughtful reviews. I couldn’t be more grateful for the support from the community.

And now, it’s time for me to start working through my queue of great Big Finish releases.

20 Years of Big Finish

This month, Big Finish Productions celebrates 20 years of Doctor Who audio dramas. Quite a milestone. So what does the anniversary mean to me, personally?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Big Finish has published two of my Doctor Who stories, for which I will always be grateful. This has not only brought my writing to the attention of the Doctor Who community, it’s given me the encouragement to continue writing original fiction.

I’m also grateful for the opportunity that Big Finish has given to classic Doctor Who actors to really shine, and to expand and grow their characters. This is obviously true of Paul McGann, whose Eighth Doctor only appeared in one TV movie (and, years later, in “The Night of the Doctor”). It’s also particularly true of Colin Baker and his Sixth Doctor. As Baker addresses himself in the extras for “The Legacy of Time”, his Doctor wasn’t exactly the most popular back in the day. While playing the Doctor for Big Finish, Baker has had all sorts of opportunities to shine as an actor, while his character has grown into a Doctor we can all love. Besides, you have to admit, it’s a godsend to be able to enjoy a Sixth Doctor story without having to look at his garish clothing choices… I have to say that while I wasn’t a big fan during his TV run, Colin Baker is now one of my favourites.

The same is true of the companions, and the first one that comes to mind is Third Doctor companion Jo Grant, now Jo Jones, married with children and grandchildren and still fighting the good fight. Her reunion with the Third Doctor in “The Legacy of Time”, during which she told him how he’d influenced her post-companion life was very touching.

Then there are the original characters with which Big Finish has enriched the world of Doctor Who. Benny Summerfield. Charlie Pollard. Lucie “bleedin'” Miller. Characters that a lot of us have come to love.

Finally, Big Finish has allowed characters from modern “Who” to continue their adventures. Think River Song. Captain Jack Harkness. The War Doctor. The Tenth Doctor! Actors and characters that we couldn’t get enough of, though now we can get our periodic fix to keep us going.

I have some favourites amongst the rather enormous Big Finish collection of audios. Needless to say, I haven’t purchased every single release. A guy’s gotta eat, after all. But of those that I’ve got my hands on, here are some of my favourites. They’re listed in chronological order of release, not in any particular order of preference.

  • The Sirens of Time. Notable, of course, for being the first Big Finish Doctor Who release, and a multi-Doctor adventure to boot. This release also serves as a yard stick of how far Big Finish has come in twenty years. While The Sirens of Time is very good, later releases have been great. As far as I’m concerned, a modern Big Finish audio is every bit as good as the best TV episodes. The quality of writing, performing, music, sound design is second to none.
  • Zagreus. This is a sentimental favourite as it’s my first Big Finish audio. After spotting the CD case with multiple Doctors in a record store (remember those?), I was entranced by the surreal, dreamlike story in which… well, there’s a lot going on here. And, of course, not all is as it seems. As far as I know, Big Finish have never released anything quite like this one.
  • Doctor Who: Master. A really fascinating, thoughtful story in which the Master and Doctor, well, talk to each other. Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor and Geoffrey Beevers is the Master. You’ll want to listen to this one many times over.
  • The Light at the End. A wonderful multi-Doctor story released to celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who. A particular treat for me was to hear the Fourth and Eighth Doctors going back and forth. Hard to believe that was six years ago now! (Hey, that means the 60th is only four years away…)
  • The War Doctor series. We were truly blessed to get four box sets with John Hurt’s War Doctor before his passing. I don’t think Big Finish has ever topped this series. Each episode in each of the four box sets is outstanding.
  • Falling. This one is my favourite Short Trip hands down, and one of my favourite Big Finish releases. A lovely story by Jonathan Barnes, exquisitely narrated by Anneke Wills. In this story about accepting change, we get a surprising preview of the crisis the First Doctor would find himself in in Twice Upon a Time.
  • The Legacy of Time. Just released this month, this is the big, anniversary celebration release. It’s a story with many Doctors in six stories that seem loosely coupled, but come together in the end beautifully. Of particular note for me is the Guy Adams Third Doctor story, The Sacrifice of Jo Grant, a story that offers some real emotional gut punches. Also of note is that, in this box set, Big Finish has expanded the history of the Time Lords with an important event in their past. Or present. Can’t say much more without spoilers.

In the end, all we can do is to thank Big Finish for their energy and enthusiasm for Doctor Who, and to wish them many more adventures in the future.

On Being Interviewed

Well, that was different. And Exciting. And nerve-wracking .

Within a week, two things happened. First, Doctor Who Magazine expressed an interest in interviewing me for my upcoming story, Doctor Who – Short Trips: Battle Scars. Second, Lucas Testro contacted me about appearing in an episode of his podcast, Doctor Who and the Episodes of Death.

Gulp.

In the end, they were both positive experiences, but very different. The chat with DWM was strictly Q&A and lasted about twenty minutes. The only real stress was in trying to work out what I could say about Battle Scars without giving away too much.

The podcast was a lot of fun. Lucas very kindly gave me a chance to chat about Landbound and Battle Scars, and for the rest, we did a deep dive into “The Beast Below”, Matt Smith’s second episode as the Doctor. Considering that we’d never interacted before, I was pleasantly surprised. It quickly felt like we were a couple of chums doing a chinwag about Doctor Who in a pub somewhere.

You don’t have to listen to Lucas for long to realize that is he obviously a pro, and he did a heck of a lot of research prior to our session. He certainly knows his stuff. But it’s good that someone does. Compared to some of the more devoted in the Doctor Who community, my knowledge of all things Who is comparatively meagre.

I did make one mistake. Prior to our chat, I’d listened to portions of a number of episodes, particularly the one with John Dorney. I became a fan right away and will be listening to the show going forward. Ah, but the mistake. I hadn’t listened to an episode all the way through, you see, and was caught rather flatfooted by Lucas’ question at the end of the podcast. He graciously laughed it off for which I was grateful. If there’s ever a next time, I SHALL BE PREPARED!

As an independent writer, you never know if there’s going to be another one. Another publication. I hope I get a chance to write for Big Finish again, but who knows? And, as of the time of writing, I’ve been singularly unsuccessful in getting any of my original stories published. So, this may be the only time anyone is interested in interviewing me. But that’s okay. With two Doctor Who stories at Big Finish under my belt, I’ve already seen a dream come true. I suspect that, going forward, I’ll always treasure these days, when there was interest in an upcoming story of mine, and when I eagerly awaited to listen to the end result.

Chase after your dreams. You never know where they’ll lead.