Monday, 29 September 2014

Has the Doctor Had His Day?

Doctor Who. A show I’ve loved for a long time. I watched Davison and McCoy on and off when I were a lad, but my interest in the franchise really sky-rocketed with the poorly received Paul McGann movie, which I really enjoyed (despite some oddities). I really liked Eccleston (again, despite the show’s cheap-and-cheerful spin on the continuity and a very annoying early-series Rose). And actually, that’s a theme with my ongoing enjoyment of the Doctor’s adventures – I always seem to find something to love about it in spite of itself. There’s always something rubbish about Doctor Who, and that can vary from the special effects to the writing, but the whole has always been better than the sum of its parts for me.

Until recently, that is.

I think I started to fall out of love with Doctor Who with the whole …of the Doctor trilogy, culminating in the Time of the Doctor. I’m in the camp of fans who didn’t like that story one bit, largely because of the hand-wavy way it got out of the whole regeneration issue. (Firstly, I don’t think, by any stretch, Matt Smith should have been the final regeneration. And even if you accept the awful logic that said he was, then the way in which he got rebooted with 13 new ‘lives’ was something out of a bad fantasy novel. It’s science fiction without the science.)

But the new Doctor (the first of a new cycle of 13, although official marketing says he’s ‘12’, and previous scripts seem uncertain on the matter) filled me with hope. Capaldi looks the part; we know he’s a great actor – shades of William Hartnell and Tom Baker abound – but even from his very first few seconds on screen with Clara it was obvious he was in for a torrid time from the writing team. I’d already lost faith in Steven Moffat’s storytelling ability, but I hoped a new series with a new Who would salvage the series. In a nutshell, it certainly hasn’t yet.

So far, I’m bemused by how dislikeable the new Doctor is. His constant quips about Clara’s appearance took a while to get used to – they were pretty sexist in the first few episodes, and only recently has this been tempered with warmth and fondness. He ‘hates’ soldiers (more about this later), to the point where he acts like a total cock at the very mention of them. He’s always ready to pull the trigger and sacrifice some lives, and he spends more time bickering than actually solving problems.

Enter, stage right, Clara Oswald. She’s now the principle character. She solves the problems; she leads the Doctor by the hand. She joked that she was his ‘carer’, but that’s pretty accurate at the moment, as Capaldi’s doctor seems schizophrenic, old, bitter and forgetful; completely out of touch with his human side. Clara, on the other hand, shows great strength of will, consistency, and gets the best of the screen time. Until, that is, Danny Pink arrived on the scene.

Danny Pink is not a bad character, despite what fandom is saying. What he represents, however, is bad for the show in my opinion. Steven Moffat seems to think that Clara only worked because she was in a strange ‘will they, won’t they?’ relationship with Matt Smith’s Doctor. Now Capaldi has taken over, looking old enough to be Clara’s granddad yet clearly harbouring some quite creepy feelings for Oswald, that dynamic doesn’t work. And so Clara is becoming defined by another man – a strong soldier, who recently swore to protect Clara and ditch her if essentially she didn’t report in to him. As the strongest character on the show so far, does Clara need this?

Who's the main character in this show?
Clue: It's neither of the blokes in the foreground.
Of course, Danny’s other purpose beyond reining in that tearaway girl, is yet to be seen. But it’s almost certainly to be a foil for the new soldier-hating Doctor – forced to travel with a soldier, what will the Doctor do (beyond being unpleasant and insufferable)? There will hopefully be some resolution at the end of this series explaining all this – why the Doctor now hates soldiers so much when he used to be a strong ally of UNIT and the Brigadier, when he encouraged Martha Jones and Ricky/Micky to become soldiers, and when he himself was one for a while – AND what Danny Pink’s main role really is. After all, he’s only a soldier because the Doctor made him want to be one, right? And he must get together with Clara if Awesome Pink is to be explained, right? That ‘God’ woman must have a part to play too… not to mention the Doctor’s ‘familiar face’ (from Pompeii, I guess). Basically, Steven Moffat’s signature is dropping lots of weird stuff into a series only to explain them in the finale (or shove them aside and shout “Timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly stuff!”). When introducing a new Doctor after arguably the most popular actor ever, however, that’s a bit of a gamble. Given past form, I suspect the finale will be a cop-out, and that Danny will die tragically leaving Clara heartbroken. The point is: it’s not okay to make characters do weird, out-of-character stuff just to get to a payoff. The ends, however clever, don’t justify the means – all it does is break a viewer’s faith in a character’s core values. It’s bad writing. Like having an alien in the Caretaker episode that’s supposedly ‘threatening the world’ but really can’t even destroy a secondary school, because it’s just there as a deus ex machina to bring Clara, Danny and the Doctor into a taut relationship. Like showing us the ‘thing under the sheet’ in Listen and having the Doctor be terrified of it, only to reveal that logically it must have been a very brave or messed-up orphan playing silly beggars (the Doctor, who once dallied with being a god, is scared of a kid under a bedsheet). Like having a spaceship powered by gold only require the addition of a golden arrow (made by those same aliens’ allies) be fired into its hull by Robin Hood to save the day.

In short, I’m rapidly losing faith in Doctor Who. The writing is all over the place, and I fear Capaldi, great as he is, has been ‘sold a pup’. I keep watching because of nostalgia: I want it to be great. For that reason alone, I’m happy to be proved wrong – but that payoff had better be bloody amazing, otherwise I fear the Doctor may have had his day.

Friday, 22 August 2014

This Wargaming Life...

The cover of 'Waterloo', by my old pal Alex Boyd, the talented devil.

A long time ago, I had a hand in designing several historical wargames, which were published by the now-defunct historical gaming arm of Games Workshop. These games still have ongoing communities, and even though official support hasn't been forthcoming for donkeys' years, people still play them, which is a comforting thought for me. It seems almost like a past life, but 'Legends of the Old west' will probably be what a lot of people remember me for (if anything!).

I was going through some old discs recently, having a good old clearout, and I found some of the support files that I produced for those games years ago - the Frequently Asked Questions, Errata, and a few free bits of rules and so on. It occurred to me that some of these files haven't existed on t'internet for a long time indeed, and there may be still folk out there who want 'em. So, without further ado, here's everything I ever did for those old games, post-publication, in one handy place. Enjoy!

Legends of the Old West: the Card Sharp & Hangin' Judge Hired Guns

Waterloo: FAQ and Errata

Waterloo: Russia army list

Trafalgar: FAQ and Errata

Trafalgar: Fleet List for Turkey

Just for good measure, I should point out that these files are in no way affiliated with Games Workshop, can't be considered 'official' (except that it 'was me what wrote em guv'nor'), and no payment was requested or given for the work herein. Bearing all that in mind, enjoy!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Hooray and Huzzah!

Yesterday, in a flurry of tweets, the news finally broke that I have secured a three-book deal with Titan Books in the UK, which will include my début novel and two further books in the same series. More details here:

Time to shout it from the rooftops!

This news comes as something of a massive weight off my shoulders. Firstly, it means I can carry on doing this writing game a bit longer. Secondly, it means I don't have to keep this monumental secret any more. Huzzah indeed!

The first book in my series of Victorian science fiction, horror and mystery will be available in the UK, USA and Australia in Autumn next year.

In the meantime, I expect this blog to take a rather more productive turn as the editing and publication process kicks in. I've already started thinking about my path to publication, and how it differed from the various stories and 'advice to writers' articles I found online in the early days. I'm thinking a series of blogs about my experiences in this regard may be of interest to other new writers trying to break into trad publishing.

Thinking cap on  more to follow!

Friday, 23 May 2014

Me, Myself and I

One of the things about becoming a writer that doesn’t agree with everyone is the isolation. If you look at various writing blogs (and indeed any sort of creative freelance role, from illustration to graphic design) you’ll notice this as a common theme. It can be a lonely business. My friends sometimes rib me that I spend too much time in coffee shops, tapping away at the laptop like some kind of hipster blogger, supping mochaccinos all day. It’s not quite true of course. the reason I go to coffee shops at all these days is so I can see another human being; recharge the batteries; change the scenery.

But this post isn’t about coping with loneliness. I generally do okay with that to be honest, and my significant other gets home each evening from a ‘proper job’, so it’s not like I’m the last man on the international space station or anything. No – this blog is about the benefits of extended periods of isolation. It’s something that has only recently hit me, as it’s started to help me figure out a few things about characterisation in my work. Sounds like a leap? Read on. 

Write What You Know
It’s an old cliché isn’t it? Write what you know. It’s a very limiting mantra if taken literally, but I tend not to take anything literally, which is why I do what I do. ‘Write what you know’ doesn’t mean you have to write a kitchen-sink drama set on an estate in 1980s Stoke-on-Trent (that’s a personal example, I’m sure yours will be different) – it means you can take the relationships that you had, or observed, and the feelings that you felt, and transplant them to outer space, a fantasy world, Victorian England (my favourite), or wherever/whenever.

But the point where the old cliché really helps is with characters. And this is where I start to make an actual point – isolation has helped me to understand myself, and understanding myself has helped me to write better characters.

I’ve always reacted to the world with gut feeling, rather than intellectualised, rationalised viewpoints. That’s often left me grappling for the right words to express my views on politics, religion, society, art, education – whatever. But lately I’ve been giving these things and more some serious thought, drilling down to my core beliefs and really analysing what makes me tick. This allows me to do three very important things in fiction (and in life, to an extent):

1. I can be absolutely sure that not all of my characters are me by extension. They can all contain facets of my personality, share some of my beliefs, if I want them to. But characters need to portray myriad viewpoints, and be complex individuals butting up against ideological conflict. Otherwise, I may as well write essays rather than stories – inform rather than entertain.
2. I can observe people with a writer’s eye. It sounds pretentious, but really it’s just me paying attention to my interactions with other humans, and their interactions with each other. People come from all walks of life, and believe all sorts of things – when you meet someone whose views conflict with your own, how do you react? How do they make you feel? Only by absolutely understanding myself do I gain a point of reference by which to measure others.
3. I can write situations to create conflict. By understanding my personality type (and there are lots of esoteric tests you can do if you want to get really technical), I know what situations cause me stress, or pleasure, or intellectual stimulation, or tiredness, etc. And I can rationalise how those situations would affect different types of people. This means I can put my characters in situations that elicit a particular response from them (usually stressful ones in my work, if I’m honest).

I read an article yesterday about world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. You can find it here. The bit that struck me the most was point 4 – that a common mistake in sci-fi is that every denizen of every world thinks, believes and acts the same. It’s almost as though the aliens that live on Rigel VI would never go down the pub and argue about UKIP’s political agenda – they just all vote the same way. But humans, of course, are as diverse as they come.

Another thing all this introspective navel-gazing has taught me is that it’s actually dangerous to be an author with controversial beliefs and put those beliefs into your fiction. L Ron Hubbard, for example, ended up seeding his religious ideology into his sci-fi novels (some people call that sort of thing ‘subversive’, you know. Watch out for that). I read some old Richard Laymon stories recently, and because the treatment of his female characters is pretty much universal across his books (and hard to read), it starts to raise questions about the man’s beliefs – ‘Is he accidentally expressing his core beliefs about women, or is he doing it deliberately to make a point?’ As soon as you start asking that question, suspension of disbelief is broken, and you start to wonder about the author’s agenda. Art and ideology should be considered separately to an extent – I reserve the right to write a Catholic character despite not being terribly religious, or even a well-rounded racist character, without being labelled a racist myself (though if he goes on to become a hero without learning his lesson, the work may well be labelled 'problematic', and rightly so). Then again, some writers come from the opposite angle, and make it really difficult to justify buying their books, however hard they try to hide their agenda. I digress. Let's keep it light...

Hopefully, amid that waffling and sidetracking, there’s some useful musings, based entirely off my own experience over the last 12 months. A lot of this stuff boils down to empathy – understand yourself, and empathise with others. That way, simply through day-to-day interactions, you’ll end up with an infinite bank of characters and character types that you can draw on when writing your characters.

Of course, that means you actually have to get out of the house. Ah, the writer’s curse.