Category Archives: Culture

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

The Continuity Conundrum

Suppose you’re a writer and you want to write for a rich, established universe. Think Doctor Who, Star Trek, or Star Wars, for example. The question becomes, how do you write something that is original but consistent with all of that backstory?

Let’s stick with Doctor Who for now. The show started over 50 years ago, and although there was that hiatus between 1989 and 2005, that’s still a lot of content. But wait, that’s not all! You also get many books, graphic novels and audio dramas (yay Big Finish!). It’s enough to make your head explode. Unless you’re a Time Lord.

So what’s a poor, human, head-about-to-explode writer to do? Well, we can be grateful that there are websites like http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Doctor_Who_Wiki. Here you’ll find just about every fact about Doctor Who that exists. If you search for the Third Doctor, for example, you’ll learn about all his adventures in chronological order across all media. As a resource, this site is invaluable. And yet, there’s still a limit to what you can absorb, and there may be details omitted within a given adventure that contradict something in your writing.

I’m afraid this is one of those posts where I have no brilliant solutions. If you actually owned the property, rather than, say, the BBC owning Doctor Who or CBS owning Star Trek, or Disney owning Star Wars, then you could consider crowdsourcing the story. Put the whole thing online, then act on the feedback you get to make the story better. Andy Weir famously did this with his novel, The Martian, with contributors pointing out sciency things that could use some tightening.

If you’re writing fanfiction, then you can do this by posting the story on fanfiction.net, for example. I posted a very short and hopefully humorous Lord of the Rings story there. Once. It was inspired by a review of one of the Hobbit movies that pointed out that the eagles are a kind of deus ex machina in Tolkien’s writing. As multiple readers pointed out, that premise was fully explored in a YouTube video in which our heroes bypass the whole adventure by simply flying with the ring directly to Mount Doom. Rats. That episode cured me of any further desire to write LotR stories. You’ve really got to know your stuff, especially for that fandom.

Posting content online yourself doesn’t really work if you’re writing commercially for someone’s existing intellectual property. As with most things, I suppose you can only do as much research as you can (and as your deadline permits) and do your best.

PS Have I mentioned that Landbound has been released by Big Finish? Oh.

Landbound Available Now

DMzrImYX0AAWWsn.jpg-largeLandbound, the Doctor Who short story that I wrote, is now available as a Doctor Who Short Trip from Big Finish. The audio drama is free, but you need to login or create an account with Big Finish.

I can’t call it “my” story anymore, as the end result represents a collaboration with Big Finish. To be honest, the final product blows me away. Nicholas Briggs’ narration is exquisite and at times emotionally gut-wrenching. The sound effects take you right there, to the Whitby coast, to the Jolly Sailor pub, and to the TARDIS itself. Then there’s the brilliant music which adds so much to the presentation.

As for my written story, I gave it everything I had to make it the best that I could. Then, with gentle nudges from editor Ian Atkins, we made it better still.

I hope you get a chance to check it out. Let me know what you thought.

Oh yes, and Happy New Year to all!

Landbound

DMzrImYX0AAWWsn.jpg-large.jpegAs has been announced by Big Finish,  my story “Landbound” was selected for the 2017 Paul Spragg memorial competition. It will be released in audio form in December.

It’s important to note that the point of the exercise is to honour Paul Spragg, a Big Finish employee who passed away at a much too young age. He was obviously beloved by his co-workers and by all accounts was a great human being. Paul believed in nurturing new talent, hence the decision by Big Finish to open the doors in the form of this competition. It’s taken a huge amount of work on their part. Imagine the time it must take to review nearly 1,000 story concepts and narrow the field to a half dozen finalists.

As for me, it’s been an interesting journey. I just checked my fanfiction.net profile and was surprised to see that I posted my first fanfic six years ago. I’d have sworn it was less time than that. Writing fanfiction is a wonderful opportunity to  grow as a writer while meeting and supporting and being supported by fellow writers. At some point, I started to feel I was “ready”, and began submitting stories for publication. Two were rejected, the third has been in consideration for some eleven months, and then there was this year’s Paul Spragg competition. I had no serious expectation that my story concept would be selected and was absolutely gobsmacked when I got the email from Big Finish.

What I’m taking away from the experience is a couple of things. This was the first time working with an editor and it was a wonderful experience. Ian Atkins had some great ideas for how to polish the story and trim it to the required length. He helped me to better appreciate the importance of providing characters with clear motivation, for instance. There was one scene in particular that broke my heart to cut. Ian liked it as well, but pointed out that it didn’t actually move the plot forward, so it could go. It went. And all things considered, the story is better for it.

The second take away is how wonderful the community has been. I’ve received all sorts of congratulations from friends and strangers alike. It’s very heartening.

If you haven’t heard of Big Finish, by all means check them out. Though they’re likely best known for their Doctor Who audio dramas, they also produce dramas for everything from H.G. Wells to Sherlock Holmes to the Prisoner to King Lear. They’ve been expanding their output while somehow improving the quality of their productions. They are very good and well worth exploring. The short trips range, of which Landbound will be a part, are short stories narrated usually by a single actor. Again, there are some real gems here. I’m particularly taken with “Falling“, a lovely first Doctor story that features his companion Polly.

I’ll post a link here when the story is released. Hope you enjoy it.