The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

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?