The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Keep Your Head Up

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I blame life, it has a habit of getting in the way. Particularly the work bits and the family bits and the going out with friends watching telly reading books and listening to music bits. I hope you’re not too upset. Just slightly upset.

Anyway, I should plug all the things I’ve had released since I last blogged. Yes, I’m that bad at self-promotion, I neglect even to plug my stuff.

So, out in July was a collection I script-edited called Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories. My job for this one was to find three new writers to Doctor Who audio (as Nev Fountain had already been commissioned). I’m very proud with the three new writers I found (I’ve blogged about it before here). In my experience, it is surprisingly difficult to find new writers who can do Doctor Who. What you’re looking for is someone with writing experience, ideally who has had a dramatic or comedic script performed on a professional basis. You need someone with a professional attitude (i.e. someone who sees writing as a first or second career and not just as a hobby, because the life of a working writer is one of tight deadlines, painful notes and last-minute rewrites, and not everybody has the right mindset to cope with that. You don’t want someone who thinks they’re a genius who refuses to change a single word). And once you have found promising candidates, you have to get them on board; you need to contact them, discuss the brief, then they need time to come up with ideas that will work, and work out if they can fit it into their schedule. Not everybody says ‘yes’, and not everybody who would like to say ‘yes’ can say ‘yes’, and not everybody who does say ‘yes’ can come up with a workable idea. But the whole point of the exercise is to find fresh voices (which can come from anywhere), and I’m very proud that Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories did that, and that Nev produced a stunning, ingenious and deeply moving story too. I would love to be able to take more of the credit.

Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories can be ordered here.

I had two Doctor Who audios out in August. The first was released as part of The Fifth Doctor Box Set and was called Psychodrome. I blogged about it before here. If you’ve heard it, you’ll know that it has quite a high-concept science fiction idea at its heart. I wanted to write a Big Dumb Object-type story like Rendezvous with Rama and had been reading about Dyson spheres, structures of such vast power they can summon up any object on demand. As I said in my earlier blog, it was a tribute to the sci-fi-stylings of Christopher H Bidmead so would have to be Proper Science Fiction. But I expect he’d hate it!

The two other inspirations for the story were, firstly, my fan boy frustration with Castrovalva. Now Castrovalva is a poetic, strange, and wonderfully imaginative story but it is also (like all Doctor Who of its era) emotionally constipated. This is a story where Nyssa and Tegan have barely met, they’ve both recently suffered huge, traumatic emotional losses, but where instead of discussing any of that, they talk about recursion! Adric is barely in the story, so we never get to explore how he feels about being faced with a new Doctor. The next story, Four to Doomsday, has the Doctor and his companions acting like old friends, so there seems to be a character beat missing. Or at least a gap where a story could be told, where the Doctor and his companions get to know each other and take stock.

And secondly, a few years ago there was a music fad where tracks would be ‘mashed up’, the vocal line of one song to the chords of another, that sort of thing. I’m not claiming to be with-it, this was several years ago. But I noticed that a lot of the stories during the beginning of Adric’s run as a companion, from Full Circle to Castrovalva, shared a lot of common themes and elements, such as crashed spaceships that must never take off, or medieval societies that were once highly advanced but have now fallen into a state of decay. And bad guys with beards. So I thought about telling a story that would be a ‘mash-up’ of all those adventures; not using anything specific, keeping it vague, but that was one of my other starting points. One day if I get really bored I may explain the rationale behind the various character names.

The Fifth Doctor Box Set can be ordered here.

Also out in August was Revenge of the Swarm. Now, maybe as a reaction against Psychodrome, which I’d written a month or so earlier, with this story I wanted to have fun with a capital F. I’m a strong believer that what you put into a story is what other people get out, and so I put in sheer delight and laughter and, above all, my admiration for the story The Invisible Enemy. I wanted to write a story in that world, in the Bob Baker and Dave Martin style (where science fiction is wild fantasy with technological trappings). I wanted to juxtapose different eras, mix up the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and the present, in a fun way. And also, because I felt that endings were my weak spot when it came to stories, to plot it all out in detail and deliver an exciting, tightly-plotted ending. And, because the last few ‘Hex’ stories had been very angsty, and his final story would be very angsty, to do something light and ‘sci-fi’ by way of contrast. That’s what I was aiming for.

Now, it would be fair to say that the story has met with mixed reviews. It’s sorely tempting to go through all the bad reviews, point by point, and explain why they’re wrong, but I’m not going to do that. The customer may not always be right but if they’ve spent £15 on a story they are bloody entitled to moan if they didn’t enjoy it! All I can say to those people is, I’m sorry, and I’m annoyed too, it’s very annoying to have written something to put a grin on people’s faces and for it to fall flat. It’s what I imagine it must be like to be a comedian dying on stage. To be honest, maybe I should have expected that reaction given that some people don’t share my love for The Invisible Enemy.

But two brief thoughts. The story has been criticised for being too traditional, maybe too close to The Invisible Enemy. That’s a fair criticism, but inevitable as I wanted to write a story that didn’t just bring back the Nucleus of the Swarm but which also revisited the world seen in The Invisible Enemy. I could have reinvented the Nucleus as a dark, serious, psychological, credible villain, but what would be the point? If I was going to do that, I might as well create a new monster and avoid paying royalties. The appeal of the story for me was to have fun with the idea that this is a monster that knows it looks like a ‘pathetic crustacean’ and have fun with that. A monster motivated by an inferiority complex, determined to prove it was a proper Big Bad.

The other criticism is that the story doesn’t do anything new. Now, I refute this. I feel very strongly that every story I write has to do something that’s never been done before, otherwise there would be no point in writing it (and writing it would be a thoroughly miserable exercise). And with Revenge of the Swarm my idea for an innovation was to tell a story that was both a prequel and a sequel, and which would re-contextualize the story it was prequelizing/sequelizing. My inspiration was The Godfather Part II. My idea was to tell a story in two halves, first half prequel, second half sequel, but which also works as a continuous story in its own right. This is certainly something that’s never been done before in Doctor Who, or anywhere else to my knowledge, not in films, not in books.

But, as I said earlier up the page, the customer is entitled to their opinion, and all I can ask is that they try to avoid using words like ‘lazy’ in reviews because I’ve just checked the files and half the ‘date modified’s show that I was saving the word files at half twelve in the morning (after sitting down to work at nine o’clock in the morning). You may love the story, you may hate it, but I put as much time and effort into writing it as I put into Psychodrome and every other script.

Revenge of the Swarm can be ordered here.

Moving on. I also script-edited the other story in The Fifth Doctor Box Set, Iterations of I. I don’t remember very much about doing it, John Dorney’s first draft was excellent so all I had to do was nit-pick. After that, I script-edited the two seventh Doctor stories that followed Revenge of the Prawn; Mask of Tragedy  by James Goss and Signs and Wonders by Matt Fitton. Again, both stories were pretty much there in the first draft, all I had to do was make a few suggestions, and try to make everything fit together seamlessly. Which I almost did. You know how, when someone gets married and changes their name, they sometimes still sign cheques with their old name, out of habit? That.

Although I really can’t claim any credit, I’m very, very proud of all three stories I script-edited, they were all very good to begin with and (at best) I made them slightly better. John Dorney’s story is a genuinely terrifying ghost story with proper mind-bending maths, James Goss’ story is an hilarious, clever, dizzyingly imaginative historical romp which will teach you facts, and Signs and Wonders is a dark, epic, apocalyptic, Nigel Kneale-ish finale. My only significant contribution to that was to get Matt to rewrite the ending three times until it made me cry.

Mask of Tragedy can be ordered here.

Signs and Wonders can be ordered here.

So that’s what I’ve been up to... not including The Screaming Skull which came out last week as part of The Worlds of Doctor Who box set. And The Entropy Plague which has just been announced. Have to save them for the next blog!

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