Under Three Hundred

The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Never Can Say Goodbye


A couple of months ago I wrote a little article for Progress, about applying the one thing I know about, narrative structure, to the predicament of the Labour Party. You can read it here. 


As is always the case when I write something, I wrote far too much, so a chunk of my article had to be cut out. Which is cool, but also a pity, as that bit has turned out to be a little prophetic. It's also relevant to the current situation in the Labour Party, and explains why Jeremy Corbyn's miserably pathetic and divisive attempt to cling onto power is actually a very good thing!

Anyway, with no more preamble, here's the bit that was cut:


On the other hand, though, a narrative is still being created. Because if you read Story by Robert McKee, or The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, or any other storytelling manual, there is a classical structure being laid down. In the first act, as our inciting incident, our hero is torn out of their secure, ordinary life. Then things go from bad to worse, they are stuck up a tree being pelted with rocks, until suddenly, just when it looks like things can’t get any worse for our hero, just when it looks like the forces of darkness have won, there is a dramatic turnaround and our hero plucks a stunning victory from the jaws of defeat.

Labour, I would contend, is stuck up a tree being pelted with rocks. But it can all change. Indeed, if you wanted to create a narrative about an opposition party returning dramatically to power, then you would plot it as follows: It chooses a disastrously bad leader, it goes from bad to worse, it looks like all hope is lost, it’s about to lose the election and be wiped from existence, when – at the last possible moment – an exciting new leader swoops in to save the day and Labour wins the election. You would want to establish the party as the underdog, you would want it to look like it was facing certain and total defeat, just to set up the dramatic turnaround. It could be the most perfectly-constructed narrative arc for an opposition party – and the more well-structured a story, the more effective it is at drawing people’s attention and altering their views.


A good story is powerful, and the above narrative is not implausible. The pace of politics and the media have changed; it's flash floods rather than plate tectonics. We’ve seen in Europe and North America that charismatic candidates can capture the public’s imagination. People are looking for heroes; figures who offer a fresh approach, who don’t play by the rules, who are outsiders. Figures they can identify with, who speak their minds, who are fallible and flawed but also resilient and principled. If Labour had somebody like that, even only a few months before an election, all bets would be off.

But the thing with narrative is, the change has to be dramatic. You have to make people sit up and notice! A gradual evolution, careful not to rock the boat, is no story at all. You want as much conflict as possible! You want all the hard-left fellow-travellers to be storming out on television in order to re-establish the Labour Party as a mainstream, centre-ground party, like Derek Hatton at the 1985 Labour Party Conference. The louder they shout, the better, as long as they’re heading for the door! The reason why Tony Blair achieved such a huge victory in 1997 was because Labour had an exciting, all-new, easy-to-follow story to tell.


Some would say Jeremy Corbyn could be that ‘hero’ figure. He’s certainly pissed quite a few people off, which is a good start. Could the narrative be about a guy in his late sixties taking on the political establishment? No, I'm sorry, it won’t work. It’s just not a sufficiently dramatic story. The plot has barely moved forward since he became leader, it hasn’t got legs for another four years. What’s he going to do that’s going to defy expectations and cause Conservative voters in their millions to switch to Labour? He’s not going to do anything. He is not, with no due respect, a very exciting person.

No, to be a hero you need to be dynamic and proactive. Great stories are not told about heroes sitting around waiting for the bad guys to cock up, but that seems to be Labour’s current strategy. It won’t work, of course – I’m sure the Conservatives will cock up in all sorts of profoundly calamitous and highly amusing ways, they always do, but Labour can’t rely on their unpopularity making people switch to Labour; they’ll just turn to parties who offer a more engaging story, who offer simple answers, who offer another variety of easy-to-swallow ‘truthiness’ like UKIP and the SNP.


Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Celebration

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog. Life and work keep on getting in the way. I’ve been busy writing, always something on the go, lots of exciting projects in the pipeline and a long list of ideas for things to add to the pipeline. Plus I stood as a city councillor in the local elections. I’m rather relieved not to have won, to be honest, because if I had then something else would’ve had to go. Only so many things you can do, and right now my work/life balance is pretty much where I want it. But it was good exercise, it got me out into the fresh air, and I now have no fear of knocking on strangers’ doors and public speaking. It’s simple, you can just make stuff up, nobody’s going to check.

The other reason while I’ve been lax with this blog is that much of the nonsense that would’ve ended up here now ends up on twitter. A far more efficient way of getting things out of my system.


The big thing I have to plug right now is the 500th edition of Doctor Who Magazine. It comes in a special hardback envelope, containing two magazines, a poster, stickers and an art card. I’ve been reading the magazine since I was seven, and it has been a regular fixture of my life pretty much ever since. I’ve had so much delight from reading the magazine and so much fun in contributing to it over the years, I’ve learned so much, and it’s led to friendships with so many extraordinary, talented and lovely people. So it was a huge honour to be involved with the celebratory issue. Who would’ve thought when my mum found me a copy of issue 55 that 35 years later the magazine would still be going, and I’d be writing for it? Who would have thought that at the celebratory party on Saturday I would be eating a slice of Doctor Who cake with the cover of issue 55? It felt strangely significant.

So what are my bits in the magazine? Well, two features. The first is called The TARDIS Log, named after a memorably bewildering feature the magazine ran in the early 80s. It’s my personal guide to the history of the magazine from the point of view of a reader; there have been other articles in the past giving the magazine’s behind-the-scenes history, but I wanted to celebrate the magazine’s content, all the weird and wonderful articles, interviews, columns, letters, photographs and advertisements it has included over the years.

In researching the article, I spent a month or so earlier this year working through every single issue of DWM. Not reading every feature of each issue from cover to cover – that would take years and take a terrible toll on my sanity – but spending an hour each morning leafing through ten issues, looking out for things that were unusual, new, or which jogged a memory. And then to boil that down to a 10,000-word article and a list of highlights. It was a formidable but highly enjoyable task, taking an extended stroll down nostalgia avenue. I could easily have written far more; there were so many highlights, so many memorable moments, that when I started writing the article I found that I had written 7,000 words and only got as far as issue 200. So I had to be extremely strict and leave out loads of interesting stuff. Maybe I’ll post that first draft on this blog. Let me know if you want to read it. The shorter version in the magazine is vastly better, though!


So, yes, that’s my first article. People seem to have enjoyed it. I am a little critical in places but I hope it’s fair. And secondly, my other feature is a The Fact of Fiction on the 2013 story The Day of the Doctor. This was a tough one to do, mainly because, again, I found I had far too many things to say! It got so long that what was intended as a box-out on The Night of the Doctor was put in issue 499. But it is probably the Doctor Who story with the most ‘continuity references’, the most little details to point out, and it also has an interesting development, as Steven Moffat began writing it with the ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors, getting about two-thirds of the way through before reworking it from the beginning with the ‘War Doctor’ alongside the tenth and eleventh Doctors. A lot of the information about the later, ‘War Doctor’ drafts had previously appeared in DWM’s The Year of the Doctor special, but I was determined to make sure I wasn’t just repeating facts, that there was plenty of new stuff. So there is information in The Fact of Fiction about the early drafts with the ninth Doctor that has never been revealed before, as well lots of additional material about deleted scenes.

Plus, one of the little challenges I set myself was to identify all the stuff in the UNIT Black Archive, and I think I managed it – with help from Matthew Ross, Tom Newsom and Saul Jefferies, who were supposed to be thanked in the magazine but left off so I’ll thank them here. I’m also annoyed with myself for getting the UNIT acronym wrong! Sometimes when you’re deep in the fact-zone, trying to keep track of half a dozen different drafts of the same script, you can’t see the wood for the trees.

That’s my excuse. And talking about it reminds me I really should write a blog about my The Fact of Fiction article in issue 499 on Warrriors’ Gate, as that was also quite an undertaking. People ask me how long these things take to write but they only take about a week; when I’m in the fact-zone, I lose all track of time and space, lost in the world of research.


But that’s not quite all of my bits. I was surprised and delighted to see one of my comic strip bits picked out as one of twenty highlights in the Let’s Do The Time Vworp Again feature. I regard my era on the comic strip as being forgotten, so it was a huge thrill for me to see Chiyoko in Scott Gray’s fantastic strip The Stockbridge Showdown – in particular, to see her drawn by John Ridgway, the artist responsible for the legendary Voyager storyline that had blown my mind back when I was thirteen. I also hooted with laughter to see the Anne Robinson Sontaran included in the stickers; this image had been used for the cover of an issue including my first-ever major article for the magazine, a decidedly desperate effort about how Doctor Who was like a game show. For my article to be commemorated with a sticker alongside Clive Swift and a red-eyed Fish Person was an enormous honour.

And finally; the second magazine in the special hardback envelope is a pictorial history of DWM, and if you turn to page 110 some of the images of Summer and Winter specials are scans of my own copies of those magazines, kept stored in plastic envelopes for just such an eventuality. This may seem like a trivial thing – it is, I know it is – but those magazines are the ones that I pored over as a ten-year-old, and now there they are, part of the pictorial history of DWM.

So, anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. Rush out and buy DWM issue 500, it’s the best issue ever. And for me, and for everybody involved, a labour of love.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Girls Of Amsterdam

Happy new year, dear reader. As you can see, updating my blog more frequently has not been one of my new year’s resolutions. I haven’t done any news years’ resolutions because, basically, I got everything right in 2015 and see no room for improvement.


Anyway, stuff to plug! First off, I must implore you all to rush out and buy the latest Doctor Who Magazine as it contains two things by me; firstly, a ‘Fact of Fiction’ on the classic 1974 tale Death to the Daleks and secondly an appreciation of the classic 1968 tale The Wheel in Space.


Doing the ‘Fact of Fiction’ on Death to the Daleks was great fun, because I love the story, it’s pretty robust plot-wise as you would expect from Terries Dicks and Nation, and (I hope) I managed to find out some interesting new stuff about it. Doing these features involves what I believe proper academics call ‘close reading’ – looking at a camera script and working out what is implied by things like missing pages, mis-numbered scenes, different typefaces, handwritten notes and so on. And with each ‘Fact of Fiction’ I set myself a little challenge – in the past I’ve tried to identify stock footage of rocket launches and so on – and for Death to the Daleks my challenge was to identify the Peruvian temple that Terry Nation was referring to in part three. It’s a combination of two – one of them is this one which I trust you’ll agree looks a bit like the Exxilon city.


I’m also quite proud of my guesses as to possible sources of the names Railton and Parrinium – and for hopefully laying the ‘Doctor Who and the Exilons’ myth to rest. I have a couple more 'Fact of Fiction's in the pipeline, so keep buying the magazine.


With The Wheel in Space article I came up against an unusual challenge. When I was asked ‘Which story would you like to write about’, I suggested The Wheel in Space because I have lots of interesting opinions about it. But then, in preparation for writing the article, I checked to see what I’d written about it before in the Second Doctor Missing Episodes special – and there were all the interesting opinions I was going to write about! So I had to come up with more interesting opinions about The Wheel in Space, which fortunately is not difficult as it is ceaselessly fascinating. Initially I had planned to do 2000 words just on the opening episode but didn’t quite manage it.

So there you go. People have said kind words about both features so it looks like I’ve got away with it again.

What else? Well, I’ve a few Big Finish releases coming up. February will see the release of the third series of Vienna, which I script-edited and fiddled about with, which consists of three terrific stories by Ian Potter, Guy Adams and Steve Lyons. Lots of weird and wonderful alien worlds and mind-boggling sci-fi concepts and action and adventure. You can order it here – it’s probably worth it just for the cover:


You can also listen to the trailer here.


March will see the release of Doctor Who: The Paradox Planet, starring Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Tom Chadbon and Simon Rouse amongst others. I shall plug it at greater length nearer the time but suffice it to say I am extremely proud of it, it was a thrill to do, to have an opportunity to pay tribute to Tom, Lalla, Graham Williams and particularly Douglas Adams, and when I listened to the trailer (which can be found here) I was immediately carried back to the autumn of 1979 and could visualise the sets, costumes and special effects. You can pre-order it here (you’ll need to pre-order Legacy of Death too, as that’s the second half of the story).


Most importantly, sometime later this month my next Doctor Who audio adventure by Big Finish will be released. This is The Waters of Amsterdam, featuring everyone’s favourite fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, along with his companions Tegan and Nyssa. I’ve heard the first episode and director Jamie Anderson has done a terrific job with it, he’s got the tone just right – it has a sort of lightness of touch to it, to give the characters and emotion a chance to breathe. Story-wise it’s a bit of a departure, I hope, something a bit different, because although there are alien monsters and time travel and stuff, I think the story’s structure has a (deliberately) unusual shape and the emphasis is much more on the characters’ relationships and emotional journeys. I mean, it’s lovely to do stories that open with episodes of the Doctor and his friends exploring a deserted spaceship, I’ve done a few of those in my time, but it’s just as lovely, every now and then, to tell a story which doesn’t do what people expect, which veers off at hopefully unexpected tangents. And I’m particularly proud of some of the scenes later on with Rembrandt, hopefully I will do him justice, I look forward to hearing the rest of it!

The other thing that cannot be emphasized too strongly is this; Don’t worry, it will fit in with Omega and The Burning Prince and The Elite. I even sent the script to Nev Fountain to check! Although it’s never actually stated anywhere that Omega takes place shortly after Arc of Infinity, that’s what everyone thinks because of the production code it was given, so I have respected that. It all fits, I appreciate how important that is!

So, please buy it, you can order it here and listen to the trailer here.


One other thing I should mention is that I’ve been working on the Doctor Who: The Complete History partworks, providing new synopses for all the different stories. Which has been more interesting than you may think – there’s a hell of a lot of discipline in boiling down each episode to just 300 words, and in the process I find I often come away with a new-found appreciation of just how clever some stories are – The Day of the Doctor, for instance – while sometimes I discover that stories I had previously admired fall apart when you subject them to close scrutiny (I’m not saying which ones).

The books themselves are truly stunning, absolutely magnificent and quite definitive, so I thoroughly you recommend you avail yourself of them here.

It’s a little odd for me, plugging these articles and stories, partly because I wrote the Tom and Lalla stories quite a while ago – in June 2013 – and partly because all this stuff is, for me, a fun sideline, as my focus is on my other main writing project which is, for the moment, not something I want to talk about. When and if I have anything to tell you, I shall be tweeting about it from the rooftops. But rest assured, I am doing other stuff!