The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Same Old Scene

Okay. It’s my blog and I’ll moan if I want to.

I don’t normally comment on reviews of my stuff. It’s a policy I have, if people want to say positive things, negative things, if they want to be constructive or to just mindlessly slag it off, I don’t mind, please go ahead, feel free. If you’ve paid your money, you are absolutely right to say what you think (though if you haven’t paid your money, I’m disinclined to listen to you).

But as a general point, I find it frustrating when a review simply seems to be an exercise in spotting similarities to other stories. And if people start using phrases like ‘rip off’ and ‘clearly inspired by’ that is, I think, insulting and unfair.

Of course, it’s not just Doctor Who fans who do this. It’s a particularly tiresome thing about Shakespeare scholarship, for instance, the grim determination with which they seek to reduce all of Willy’s achievements to a list of this-being-taken-from-that, that-being-taken-to-this, as though all his talent and genius was simply a matter of passing off other people’s work as his own.

And I’m not claiming any moral high ground here. I’m always the first to point out if a new pop song sounds like an old pop song, or if a new TV show bears an uncanny similarity to an old TV show. So I absolutely understand where the critics are coming from on this. I really do.

But my point is this. I am completely upfront when I have ‘homage-ed’ another work of fiction in my own. For instance, my latest comic strip in DWM was inspired by the novel Trilby, and a desire to do for that novel what The Brain Of Morbius did for Frankenstein etc. Whenever I’ve been inspired by another piece of work, I am not only the first to admit it, I’m the first to boast about the fact to show how well-read I am and how much research I’ve done.

But when I read a review of something I’ve written, and it’s just a list of other Doctor Who stories to which it bears a resemblance... well, it’s frustrating. Because, if you’re really determined, you can find resemblances between any Doctor Who stories you care to mention. I call it the ‘selective descriptions’ game where, by selectively describing two things, you give the impression that they’re the same thing.

But it’s not really a fair way to criticise, for several reasons. Firstly, there’s the fact that often the writer will not have been conscious of these similarities. I mean, a few years ago I wrote a comic strip called Death To The Doctor, and someone who reviewed it said that it was clearly inspired by a Batman comic which did a similar thing. Now, I’ve never read any Batman comics except for the one where he teams up with Judge Dredd, so I couldn’t possibly have been inspired by a Batman comic. When I wrote it, naive and self-deluded as I might have been, I actually thought I was being original. Any similarities were coincidental and, I’m afraid, all in the eye of the beholder.

Secondly, there are the cases when the writer is aware of similarities but doesn’t think they’ll be a problem. The obvious example for this is my recent audio The Crimes Of Thomas Brewster, which many reviewers have said is a bit like Planet Of The Dead because it features a London transport vehicle being transported to an alien planet through a dimensional wormhole (this is an example of the selective descriptions I was talking about earlier). Now, obviously I was aware of this similarity, but I didn’t think it would be a problem, because it’s not a big part of the story, it’s a different type of London transport vehicle, and it’s not trapped on an alien planet but used as a means of shuttling people back and forth. So from my perspective, I was fixating on the differences rather than the similarities. And also I’m well-versed in Doctor Who enough to know that this trope didn’t originate in Planet Of The Dead; it was done many years ago in a comic strip called Train-Flight, and has been done elsewhere in other media once or twice.

Now, you may argue that I should have made more of a conscious effort to think of a different means for them to get to an alien planet, and maybe I should. I just thought the idea of being on the late-night tube and it suddenly emerging into daylight and an alien tropical jungle was pretty cool. I could’ve just had people being transported to an alien planet in a machine with a sound effect, but I thought, no, that would be boring and corny and wouldn’t create an interesting mental image. And, quite by coincidence, it tied in quite neatly with some things I’d established in an earlier story, The Haunting Of Thomas Brewster, which I thought people would appreciate. So, if you will indulge me a little self-justification, that’s where I was coming from. I was trying to avoid being corny and to reward regular listeners, and thought some broad similarities to another Doctor Who story wouldn’t be too much of a problem because all the details were so different. But, as it turns out, not different enough, and no-one is more annoyed by that than me.

Regarding the monsters in that story, Planet Of The Dead couldn’t have been further from my mind (in that story, the monsters create the wormhole; in mine, they don’t). The Terravore were inspired by an article in New Scientist about the most likely forms of alien life and an article in Focus magazine about Swarm Bots.

So you see, I’m not claiming to be original here, I wilfully pilfer from science magazines (I’m quite proud of the phrase ‘wilfully pilfer’). And I’m not moaning about the reviews, truly I am not, I can understand exactly why reviewers have said what they did and if I were in their position I would say the same. Though I was baffled by a review of Crimes which said that I’d taken a line from The Image Of The Fendahl, when the line in question was quite deliberately nicked from my own play Bloodtide (Evelyn saying ‘one day I’ll be too old for this’ as she steps onto a boat). I can assure all readers and listeners I am unlikely to take any lines from The Image Of The Fendahl, but that if I do, it will probably be ‘I accept without reservation the results of your excellent potassium-argon test’ as that is the only line of dialogue from that story that I can ever remember.

The reason why this particular criticism bugs me is that I don’t think the people making the criticism realise quite how much time and effort goes into making sure that these stories are unlike the stories that are currently appearing on television. Really. I’m talking blood, sweat and tears here. People have no idea how many stories or good ideas have had to be spiked because they were a little bit similar to something coming up on television (or something that might once have been coming up but now won’t be). I’m not complaining about that; as someone once said, we’re all playing with somebody else’s toys in their driveway, it goes with the territory. And fortunately these stories get spiked at an early stage before too much time has been expended on them; I’m not talking about great lost scripts or abandoned comics or anything like that. But it is something that lots of people, including myself, always take a great deal of trouble over and when occasionally, just occasionally, there is a coincidental similarity, all I ask is that critics think twice before using it as a stick to beat us with.

For example, one of my favourite, most appreciated, reviewers pointed out that my comic strip which featured an opera singer in a sarcophagus-like casket, was similar to the opera singer who is in a sarcophagus-like casket in the Doctor Who xmas special (see, the selective descriptions game again). Now, I admit there is a similarity, yes, it’s obvious once it’s pointed out to you. But the idea that the comic strip was ripping off the xmas special is absurd (almost as absurd as the idea that the xmas special might rip off the comic strip!). This particular story, for instance, was written before filming started on the xmas special and was based on a story I’d pitched back in March 2009. These things are written about six months in advance, sometimes more (some audios I’ve done were written two years before their release date!). They are not written and drawn in the week leading up to publication! So I would ask, if we had noticed the similarity (which we truly didn’t) what should we have done? Given there was no time for me to re-write the story or for it be re-drawn, the only thing we could have done would have been to can the entire story because of a very small, unintentional, absolutely coincidental, similarity. Sometimes great minds do think alike, more often than you might expect, particularly when the comic strip is trying to evoke the style of the television series. But I’ve already written a blog about that.

This is intolerably graceless of me, I know, and I should repeat I have no problem with negative criticism, and that in fact I really appreciate people’s honest reactions and strive to take notice of them. I court popularity, quite shamelessly.

But.... but now I have a voice in my head, whenever I try to write something, constantly saying, ‘Oh, people might say that’s a bit like story x’, ‘Oh, people are going to say you took that scene from story y’. And it’s difficult to write, and try to be as original as possible, with those whining voices in my head. I know when writing you’re not supposed to think about what the reviewers will say but I can’t help it, I’m writing because I want to please readers and the reviews are all I have to go on.

But that’s my problem and I’ll get over it. I’ll get over myself.

So, in summary, all I can do is apologise and say that I’ll try and do better in future.