The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Big Finish recently announced plans to release, in February, an audio adventure featuring a character from The Shadow Heart; the impossibly glamorous intergalactic bounty hunter Vienna Salvatori, as portrayed by the equally glamorous Chase Masterson. The audio adventure is called ‘The Memory Box’, and I wrote it back in September, with the adventure being recorded shortly afterwards in October (this is much quicker than usual, and the kind of dicing-by-death-by-deadline that makes writing so thrilling).

The release is effectively a ‘pilot’ for a series; hopefully it should give some idea of the flavour, the tone and the format, as well as being a springboard for future adventures. I’ll talk about it in more detail at the time, but a few thoughts about the putative series. What I see it as is an opportunity to tell mind-bending science-fiction action-thrillers, playing with concepts of identity and the nature of reality very much in the vein of the work of Philip K Dick. Stories like Minority Report, Blade Runner, Total Recall and Paycheck, essentially, as well as Dick-influenced stuff like Source Code, Looper and Inception. High-concept stuff, futuristic, weird, but with humour. That’s where I see it going; those are the stories I’d love to write, and those are the stories I’d love to hear as a punter (I have no intention of writing the entire series myself, I’d want to get in all sorts of unexpected names).

And because the character of Vienna is an amoral and borderline psychopathic mercenary, that gives us an opportunity to tell stories that couldn’t be told as Doctor Who stories, or Bernice Summerfield stories, or Graceless stories or as part of any currently existing range. People are always suggesting that Big Finish should have its own original range of science-fiction stories; well, as far as I’m concerned, this could be that range. Yes, Vienna may have first appeared in a Doctor Who, but her stories will not be Doctor Who knock-offs, they will stand or fall on their own merits. That’s my vision for the range.

The first story, 'The Memory Box', can be pre-ordered here.

One final thought. I’m only a hired writer, I have no say in Big Finish’s commissioning processes and would be massively overstepping the mark if I were to speak on their behalf, but I can assure you that the Vienna series – if it happens, which would be glorious but which is by no means guaranteed – will not be instead of a Charlie Pollard series, or any other series for that matter. I’m not the person to ask about that stuff, though, I just do the typing.

Hmmm.... Maybe Charlie Pollard could turn up in the Vienna series, married to Thomas Brewster. I’m sure that would go down well.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Hearts And Bones

Another plug. Doctor Who: The Shadow Heart was released earlier this month, another audio from Big Finish, this time starring Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor and guest-starring (amongst others) Chase Masterson as intergalactic mercenary Vienna Salvatori. It’s a third part in a sort-of trilogy, but as always with these things, it’s entirely self-explanatory, so you don’t have to have heard the previous stories to follow what’s going on. It can be purchased here.

It’s received mixed reviews, with some viewers correctly saying how great  it is, and some reviewers being completely mistaken. Which may sound facetious or dismissive, but as a writer of these things, where it’s too late to change anything, that’s really the only way you can deal with reviews. You can’t flagellate yourself for what’s past and bemoan the fact that you should have done x instead of y; you can only shrug and move on, and maybe learn from the experience (although the likelihood of applying that learning will be slim, as you’re never going to write the same story twice.)

I must admit, though, to being a little disappointed, if only because when I finished the script I was convinced it was one of the best Doctor Who things I’d done (and I don’t always feel this way when I finish scripts, normally I’m convinced it’s the most awful thing I’ve done). I’d put more thought and effort into writing it than usual (and the usual amount is already far too much) and, in particular, I’d tried to pack in as many weird, wonderful and original ideas as possible in order to give the punter value for money. After the first two stories in the trilogy had been quite dry and serious and had been told on a quite constrained canvas, I wanted my story to explode, be epic, be colourful. To be different. To not just be More Of The Same.

So that’s why it takes place on four different planets (well, three planets and a moon). Why it has several space battles. Why it features more alien races than I can recall, along with robots and an array of larger-than-life characters. And – this probably isn’t a spoiler, because it’s obvious from the start – and it’s why I included the idea of the Doctor following a non-linear path through the story, as an extra ‘element’. The idea excited me, because it hasn’t really been done before, for a character to arrive half-way through a story, then travel back to the beginning, then travel forward a bit, then travel backward and so on. Normally with time travel stories you tell it from the point of view of the time traveller, but this time I thought I’d tell it from the point of view of everyone else, in strict chronological order. And, like I said, I thought it hadn’t been done before; yes, you have things like The Time Traveler’s Wife, but even there you can’t track the husband’s non-linear journey through the book, the author keeps the precise sequence of appearances vague. I wanted to tell a story where the listener could, if they so wished, listen to it both chronologically or from the Doctor’s point of view and where it would make dramatic sense both ways; partly to give value for money, and partly to challenge myself. Because telling these sort of stories, making them logical, is pretty mind-bending. You keep coming up against the Predestination Paradox Problem – I may blog about what it precisely is later. But the idea was to tell a story that one way round looks like the Doctor has ingeniously planned everything in advance; but where, if you follow it from the Doctor’s point of view, he’s just making it all up as he goes along.

Anyway, so that’s why it has space snails and a planet of monkey-bats and a planet smashed in half and a computer that resembles a gothic cathedral and a futuristic space navy with 18th-century trappings and the non-linear stuff and loads of other things. Because I wanted to tell a big, self-consciously epic story, as a contrast – particularly as a contrast to my previous play, Protect & Survive, which was told on an incredibly small-scale.

So I must admit to being a little non-plussed by a review dismissing the whole story as a parody of Star Wars. Now, the customer is always right, if that’s how it came across to them then that’s entirely valid. All I can say is that wasn’t the intention. If anything, writing science-fiction, Star Wars is something you’re always trying to avoid, because it is so well-known, so iconic. But on the other hand, there’s the problem that by doing so you restrict your canvas; do you never include a scene set in an alien pub because Star Wars did that? Do you never include a snow planet because Star Wars did that? It’s an interesting problem; do you consciously avoid anything that’s been done in Star Wars, or do you pretend Star Wars never existed?

Either way, nothing could have been further from my mind when writing this story than Star Wars. I mean, I like Star Wars, I’ve seen all the films, I’ve played the Lego games, I’ve even had an emotional breakdown whilst watching Attack Of The Clones, but it wasn’t a conscious influence on The Shadow Heart. The influences – if they aren’t obvious – were the 1980 Flash Gordon, Serenity, and some 2000AD comic strips like Ace Trucking Company, as well as a couple of sitcoms.

(For example. The pub landlord character in The Shadow Heart was not intended to resemble any character from Star Wars, but was specified in the script as sounding like Marion out of Mongrels.)

 (And, for what it’s worth, the inside of the Shadow Heart wasn’t inspired by the Death Star, it was inspired by various medieval depictions of hell.)

(To be honest, if I was going to write a Star Wars parody I wouldn't know where to begin, as Family Guy has pretty much ploughed that furrow. Maybe I'd take the piss out of all its cod-mysticism.)

I’m also a bit bemused by a couple of reviews saying that the seventh Doctor time-travelling during the story to set up a master-plan is old hat. Again, I can’t argue with how it may have come across, but I’d  defend my choices by saying, firstly, that’s what that character does, and secondly it’s using that idea in a way that has not been done before (to my knowledge, at least).

And one or two people say that the character of Vienna, a vain, glamorous, borderline-psychotic female intergalactic bounty hunter, has been done before elsewhere. Well, I may have limited terms of reference, but again, I thought I was being original; I certainly wasn’t imitating anything. A cursory trawl through the internet doesn’t bring up any similar characters... so I have to ask, would a male bounty hunter have been better?

Anyway, the point of all this is merely to observe that you never can tell how something you write will be received, as no two people have the same terms of reference, or the same imaginations. I’m still very, very proud of The Shadow Heart; it’s ambitious, it’s full of ideas and I was certainly striving to be original when I wrote it. I certainly put in the hours! So why not download it, if you haven’t done so already, and see what you think?

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Swami (Plus Strings)

Have you bought Doctor Who: Voyage To Venus from Big Finish yet? If not, I urge you to do so. Not only is it an excellent story, featuring the sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, facing the fearsome fauna of an alien jungle, not only does it feature Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, portrayed by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, not only does it guest-star Juliet Aubrey out of Primeval, and not only did I write it, but – until the end of the year – it’s available for only £1 for download or £5 for the download and a physical CD. Any cheaper and Big Finish would be paying you to take it off their hands.  It’s part of a sort of market-test, to see if lowering prices will reduce internet piracy and increase sales; so if you want Big Finish to do more low-priced releases, then you should buy this one to show support. And then buy Doctor Who: Voyage To The New World too.

Reading the preview for it in Doctor Who Magazine, Matthew Sweet, the writer of Voyage To The New World, comments that both the stories play on ideas of colonialism, which struck me as being typically astute of him. As I wrote Voyage To Venus so long ago* I’d actually forgotten this aspect of it, but it was a conscious theme; having our heroes consider laying a claim to Venus under a union jack; the relationship with the ‘colonial’ Venusians and the native Thraskins (used as servants, or ‘Wallahs’); the way that hunting treats an environment as a place of entertainment for a governing elite, with the collection of trophies; the visit to the native swami. This also draws on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, where Mars and Venus are exotic climes which are basically analogues of Africa, telling Boy’s Own adventure stories with an obvious colonial mindset.

As I recall, around the time I was writing it I read CS Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet, which bored me rigid and so was not a great influence, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men, which I enjoyed greatly and found very inspiring. I also had in mind HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and the idea of humanity evolving into two distinct species along class lines, the Eloi and the Morlocks. In Voyage To Venus, a race has (artificially) evolved along lines of gender, which felt like an original idea when it occurred to me, even if it’s been done before. There’s also some Jules Verne in there, as well as some Proper Science.

Of course, the story also has the normal thrills and spills you’d expect from a Doctor Who story, and various in-jokes, including an allusion to a memorable cover of Doctor Who Weekly. This sort of thing amuses me greatly so hopefully it will amuse you too. It's also a bit of a 'Christmas Special'. So, please, download today, without delay!

(I previously blogged about Voyage To Venus earlier, here)

* The story was first mooted in September 2010, with David Richardson requesting something ‘Jules Verne-ish. A bit First Men In The Moon.’ This was just after I’d delivered Tales From The Vault. I sent off a synopsis on the 17th, and wrote the play over a couple of weeks in October/November (so over two years before it was released!). It was then recorded on January 13th 2011 (save for the opening and closing scenes which I didn’t write and which were recorded at a later date, I think).

Friday, 23 November 2012

Slight Return

I’ve been a bad blogger. I’ve let myself down, and let my blog gather dust, letting it resemble one of those un-updated pop group websites that has ‘New album due in 2008’ as the latest item in the ‘News’ section. So I’m sorry about that, it’s been a cause of constant, but very mild, and very ignorable, irritation for me over the past few months too.

My excuse is, of course, that I’ve been busy. I’ve written and re-written about seven or eight hours’* worth of scripts over the past three months, plus a 10,000 word article for Doctor Who Magazine, so it’s not as if I’ve been lounging on a chaise longue waiting for inspiration to strike. The thing is, it’s very difficult to justify the time to write a blog if you have somebody who has paid you money to write something waiting for you to hand it in. It just doesn’t look professional if, rather than working on the thing that you’re meant to be working on, which has a deadline stampeding towards you and studios booked and actors pencilled, instead you’re writing a blog on your top ten favourite twist endings in Brotherhood of Man songs or doing something utterly superfluous like reviewing the latest James Bond film.

So that’s the reason. Because it looks bad, and I don’t want the people who I’m supposed to be writing for to see me frittering away my creative-typing time rather than giving paid work priority. I don’t want to give them cause to wonder what it is they are paying me for. I want them to have the (entirely correct) impression that I am working hard on whatever it is I have been contracted to do, slaving away into the evenings, nights and early mornings, burning candles at both ends and not going out to the pub, cinema or theatre or playing endless Killer Sudokus. Which I am not doing.

Oddly, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to twitter, which has been an outlet for the ever-growing stockpile of marginally amusing trivia that fills my brain. And if you have one safety-valve outlet, you don’t get the pressure build-up that requires another. It’s all a question of plumbing. And while, yes, I should be too busy to tweet (and sometimes, thankfully, get so into The Writing Zone that  I don’t) I’d defend it in two ways.

Firstly, that it’s not really writing as such, but more the equivalent of telling a joke to the bloke sitting opposite you at the office based on what you’ve just heard on the radio. As a freelancer, thankfully I am spared the social rigmarole of office life – the relentless bloody birthday cards - and I can’t write if I can hear a squirrel clearing its throat in the back garden, never mind cope with music or a prattling DJ, so for radio read ‘the BBC news website, the Media Guardian website and, at a push, Chortle’. But nevertheless there is that need to discuss, to feel connected, and to have a social outlet for the fruitless guff that would otherwise clog up the cogs of the mental machinery.

Following on from that, reason two, is that it’s a useful reminder that when you’re writing, you’re writing for an audience, a throng of punters, and it’s good to have that pressure, that feeling that there’s a thousand people sitting in the auditorium with their arms folded and ‘I’ve had a shit day, amuse me’ expressions on their faces. It’s good to be conscious that what you’re writing will have readers, listeners or viewers, because sometimes it can feel like the only people you’re writing for are the producers or script editors of the project.

That’s why it’s so important to write with the hope (if not the certainty) that what you’re writing will get seen, heard or read, that it will get published in some form, because it’s bloody hard to motivate yourself to spend days, weeks, months on a script if you think that the only person in the world who will ever read it will be one producer who will take six months to get around to it and won’t be giving it their full attention when they do and who will only be reading it to look for reasons to reject it. I’m not bemoaning the state of the world – I’ll save that for another day – just saying how difficult it is to motivate yourself to go through that process when you have other people offering you money to write stuff that will actually be read, heard or seen. ‘Get paid and get made’ always has to take priority.

* This sounds vague. I’m not vague about how much I’m written, I’m just vague on how many hours and minutes it will turn out to be.