The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Give A Little Bit

I've just put a signed copy of the script of 'Doctor Who: The Glorious Revolution' up on ebay. The script has been signed by the cast, writer, director and producer and the auction is in aid of Comic Relief.

Dear reader, why not put in a bid? Link here.

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.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Une Nuit A Paris

Eventually I’ll get around to writing blogs about the last few books I’ve read, Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby, Firstborn by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter and Wiped! by Richard Molesworth. But that’ll have to wait.

Instead today’s blog is on an operetta we went to see on Tuesday, as a belated valentine’s thing (on Monday we went to a thing at the Hunterian where I pickled a plasticine spider and Simon’s dad gave a talk on syphilis). The operetta we went to see was Troy Boy, Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, with a new book and lyrics by Kit Hesketh-Harvey.

It was absolutely superb. You should all go and see it. It’s updated to a setting in modern Greece but only as a framing device, essentially it’s still the story of Helen being seduced by (or seducing) Paris and leaving her husband Menelaus to go and live with him in Troy. The other characters are Calchas, a cheeky priest, Agamemnon, a pompous idiot, Achilles, a vain poser, and the muscle-headed Ajaxes, here memorably played by one Ajax holding a glove puppet for the other.

Despite being a stripped-down production, the voices were so big the end effect was as impressive as a full-cast show; particularly Rosalind Coad as Helen. In fact, the smaller cast meant it was easier to make out the witty and literate lyrics, which sometimes lose coherence when you have vast choruses belting them out. And whilst I normally find any form of audience participation excruciatingly embarrassing, in this case I can forgive it because, well, it’s one thing to hear an opera singer vocalising away on a distant stage and another to have her belting something out directly at you from a distance of two feet.

If I had to find a criticism, it would be that the book is occasionally too reliant on puns for its humour, which falls flat; I’d say the situation has enough scope for humour coming from the big, silly characters that it doesn’t need to resort to groan-some wordplay. But then, I've written a whole sub-Blackadder sitcom about the Trojan war, I would think that.

Offenbach’s music is more Gilbert & Sullivan than Verdi; the songs are strong, jolly and catchy, full of character and colour. But without that awful smarminess with which Gilbert & Sullivan are indelibly associated, in my mind at least.

Book tickets here.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Now And Then

Doctor Who expert Richard Bignells presents a documentary on the filming locations for the classic Tom Baker Doctor Who story 'Doctor Who And The Androids Of Tara'. This documentary has sadly yet to be included as an extra on any DVD release.

Actually it's a bit of silly messing about, made in 2009.

Friday, 11 February 2011

You're History

Time to dash to your nearest branch of WHSmith’s, because there’s a new issue of Doctor Who Magazine out. This month it hasn’t been polythene-bagged, so you can read it in the newsagents absolutely free. But don’t do this, please buy it and take it home, it’ll take at least a couple hours to read the whole thing.

My contributions are the script for the comic strip, the second and conclusive part of The Screams Of Death, where all the Trilby-homage-ing gives way to a bit of Victor Hugo, all very gothic and grand opera, and a ‘Fact Of Fiction’ article about the classic 1987 Sylvester McCoy adventure ‘Paradise Towers’.

I say classic largely out of a trying-to-be-ironic habit of referring to all of the old Doctor Who stories that way (it’s a thing, to dull to explain) but partly because I do, in all honesty, hand on heart, actually think the story has a lot to commend it. It’s not particularly highly-regarded by Doctor Who fans in general, indeed, there are only about a dozen stories less-well highly-regarded, but that, I suspect, is largely down to some quite bizarre production decisions made on the story (even by the standards of mid-80’s Doctor Who) and a couple of misjudged, mannered performances, rather than the script, which is very original, funny, scary, dramatic and well-structured.

It’s quite a challenge, doing one of these ‘Fact Of Fiction’ articles, which concentrate on the fiction of the story rather than the behind-the-scenes production; it’s more about the writing than who played which monster. The challenge is partly in trying to retain one’s sanity whilst being so immersed in the detail of one story, and partly in trying to come up with new things to say, and uncover new ‘facts’, about a story which has already been subject to the scrutiny of Andrew Pixley, David Brunt and others. So I’m quite proud that the article does contain a few new bits of information about the story’s content and its context, and in writing it I learned a lot about Brutalist architecture, whilst re-reading High Rise by JG Ballard and The Ballad Of Halo Jones by Alan Moore, and reading for the first time, The Castle by Franz Kafka. That’s one of the best thing about this writing lark, all the weird places it leads you. I mean, previous projects have had me reading up on Charles Darwin, the Glorious Revolution, Victorian spiritualism, funfairs, railways and river-scavengers, the Trojan war, Mary Shelley and the romantic poets, all the latest scientific theories regarding time travel and evolution, the composition of Mars and its moons, space elevators, folklore, the Battle of Spion Kop, the Battle of Waterloo, the complete life and works of William Shakespeare and Dickens, the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, and, most recently, the social history and pop culture of the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Regarding the last one, yes, I was there at the time, which is an advantage, but you’d be surprised how much you forget - and because a lot of readers will have also there at the time, you have to make doubly sure that you get it right. Fortunately there are sites like BBC Cult which are an invaluable resource of such information; unfortunately the BBC is planning on deleting them, and many others containing large amounts of content generously provided by the general public, such as H2G2 and WW2 - The People’s War. Just as deleting files off your own PC doesn’t save you any money, this won’t save the BBC a penny, and is potentially an act of cultural vandalism if not in the same league then in the same mindset as throwing away all those episodes of Top Of The Pops, Doctor Who, Hancock’s Half Hour, Not Only But Also, The Likely Lads, Dad’s Army and, possibly the greatest tragedy of all, dozens and dozens of other shows that no-one ever mentions because they’ve never heard of them because they were thrown away. Anyway, that’s what the BBC plan to do with a hundred odd of their websites, because the guy in charge of the BBC’s website policy doesn’t seem to understand what a top-level-domain actually is and as part of a fatuous and counterproductive exercise to look like they're cutting costs. For more info on what's happening, I recommend this blog.

There are also some other features in the magazine but I didn’t write those, you’ll have to buy the magazine to find out.