Tag Archives: Doctor Who

End of Season Grump

End of another series of Doctor Who, and I have a grump. I liked a lot that they tried to do this year – a lot of ambitious storytelling effort and trying to do things that were genuinely different, and some of it worked. But man, I didn’t like the wrap-up.

Some of that last episode was fun – the ‘Last Cyberman’ mastermind getting casually chumped by the Master was darkly hilarious – but I felt like there were a variety of problems with the writing, and I especially didn’t enjoy the new reveals about the past of the Doctor. Part of it is that it’s such a major retcon of the show’s history (and not a retcon that works especially well, in some ways), but that kind of thing is sort of the inevitable consequence of a TV show that is sort of like following a comic book, at this point – so many different writers and creators that all want to make their mark on the character and their world and some will take big swings. A lot of it will go away.

So this might have just been a big swing that was a miss for me, but I think it was especially so because I don’t like the idea of rewriting the Doctor into being a Very Special person with a special destiny and a double-secret past. I think the character is so much cooler as a frankly mediocre member of this strange race of time travellers who – not out of any secret agenda or inborn destiny – just decided to change their lives and start doing good things.

It’s kind of the same thing I liked about Rey, when she was still Rey from Nowhere. You don’t have to have the special bloodline or the destiny written in the starts to start being a hero. Anyone can do it, which means everyone can do it. It’s the same message from the end of Into the Spider-Verse – anyone can wear the mask. To me that’s a message we kind of need, these days, and it’s a much cooler one than ‘the Special Person will do the thing’.

(I am also increasingly disappointed, as much as I do enjoy Sacha Dhawan’s manic Master, that we’re apparently just pretending Missy never happened now. Of course, the Doctor never got to know that in the end, Missy really was on their side again, but you would think the whole issue of Missy seeking redemption might have come up in at least one of their conversations, at some point.)

Anyway, I still like Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor very much, I enjoy a lot of the things they’re trying to do with a show that’s going to take some big swings, but I am somewhat hoping that a lot of that infodump we got in the last episode (also: not great storytelling, there) turns out to be some kind of misdirect or ploy by the Master. Because no sir, I don’t like it. Also, get off my lawn.

(Also, you’ve gotta do better if you want to cliffhanger me than ‘oh gosh the Doctor is in prison’. Putting the Doctor in jail is never going to work for more than about thirty seconds, and everyone who has ever seen the show knows it)

Thanks for reading.

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What Just Happened on ‘Doctor Who’?!?

I wasn’t at all sure what I was going to write about tonight, until I watched the latest episode of Doctor Who. (‘Fugitive of the Judoon’, incidentally) I had kind of kicked around the idea of writing about the return of Doctor Who after BBC shenanigans gave us another extra-long break, but I didn’t have too too much to say.

(There are about to be some spoilers, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who)

I had mixed feelings about the return of the Master – Sacha Dhawan gave us a fun take on the character and seemed to be having a great deal of fun, but (as I went through in a previous entry) I really enjoyed the wobbly path towards redemption – and being the Doctor’s friend again – that we saw Michelle Gomez’ Missy take, and loved the poignant end to her incarnation. Dhawan’s Master at least seems to undo all of that (it’s at least possible that his Master comes in between the previous incarnations we saw and Missy, due to time travel nonsense, but then having his TARDIS appear as a flying house did seem to be a shot at Missy), which I regret a bit.

At the same time, this is what almost always happens with villains who ‘turn good’ – they’re so much more useful to the plot of an ongoing story as baddies than ancillary heroes that it’s very hard to resist flipping the switch back over. The Master is nearly always a fun foil for the Doctor, Dhawan did a great job as a particularly expressive version of the character, and he wore Patrick Troughton pants. It was pretty awesome.

After that the episodes were just pretty ok, and I lost much sense that I had anything to write about here, until ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’. Holy boats, the series abruptly made a hard turn into some delightfully puzzling territory. Captain Jack was back, that was cool. We have another incarnation of the Doctor, who we’ve never heard of before, and who doesn’t seem to fit into either the character’s past or present as we’ve known it. Maybe Gallifrey is gone and maybe it isn’t. Something truly, gloriously weird is afoot.

If I stop and think about it, I don’t love every aspect of this storyline. I especially think they’ve gone to the ‘fate of Gallifrey’ well a few too many times now. Either destroy the place or leave it be, but there’s not a lot of impact to yet another change in status for the home planet the Doctor basically never visits. The puzzle-box plotline is likewise a frequently used tool in the box for the writers of the revived series, and it hasn’t always paid off.


This is a truly intriguing mess they’ve thrown in our lap (and, incidentally, how cool did Jo Martin’s TARDIS interior look?) and I really can’t wait to see where the ship is going, now that it’s veered onto this unexpected course. If nothing else, I’m glad to see the writers doing something truly bold in terms of direction with this series – even if they don’t end up quite sticking the landing, they certainly haven’t played it safe this time, and that, I enjoy.

Thanks for reading.

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Couple of quick-fire topics tonight, as Can*Con approaches and I increasingly feel as though my head may be on fire.

This past weekend we saw the first episode of Doctor Who with the new actor portraying the Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. I’m not going to get too in-depth, partly because ‘spoilers’ and partly because ‘head on fire’ but in short: I thought it was really fun.

Whittaker was great and seemed very comfortable in the role. It will be interesting to see how much of her manic energy level will be a temporary artifact of the regeneration process and how much will be a permanent element of the character. Either way, it was a treat to watch, I thought the new cast looked like they will be fun and bring a variety of different perspectives on travelling around with an itinerant mad scientist.

I have seen some criticisms of the episode arguing that it was an overly simple plot and not grand enough for the introduction of a new Doctor. I agree that it was a pretty basic story, but I applaud the decision for a couple reasons. First, although I have enjoyed the last few seasons of the show, it is also true that I have found the increasingly labyrinthine and obscure season-long puzzle arcs to be less and less charming. A season that isn’t trying quite so hard to weave an intricate mystery out of a bunch of enigmatic hints and just has some straight-ahead tales will be very welcome.

I also think it was a wise move on the part of the writers, because it would have been reasonable to anticipate a bunch of new viewers tuning in for this one. You want something accessible, not something that requires exhaustive knowledge of years and years of Doctor Who lore to appreciate. You could tune into this with very little background at all, understand what was going on, and jump on the ride.

It looks like it’s going to be a good one.


Also, as Can*Con approaches, I achieved one wee little goal I had set for myself. I had planned to finish the third revision of Heretic Blood in time for the convention, in part so that it was ready to pitch to a couple people who I’m hoping to have a chance to talk to, and also because (as I’ve mentioned), I like a deadline. We are juuuuust under the wire, but I can say: Mission Accomplished.

All of the revisions so far have been fairly significant, and although that’s not always easy (what do you mean it wasn’t perfect the first time?), I think each rewrite has made the story significantly better. Right now, I have a story I’m quite proud of, that I will be pleased to share with a wider audience, and that I know not everyone is going to like.

That’s ok. There is probably some Platonic ideal story out there that will please every reader. I haven’t created it yet, and I haven’t read it yet. I think Heretic Blood has its strengths, and I feel confident that people will read it and like it. Some people will find it not their cup of tea, and I’m all right with that. I think the story needs to be the way it is. Pushing it to be something else might eventually work, but then it would be a different story than the one I wrote, and although it might then appeal to people it wouldn’t in its current form, we’d probably lose some of the people who might like it as it is currently written.

You can, I think, chase the broadest possible appeal forever. I think Heretic Blood is pretty darn close to being exactly the story that I want it to be. (It isn’t, by the way, the story I thought it would be when I set out to write, but that’s also more than fine.) At a certain point, a piece of art is what it is going to be, and you have to send it out into the world and let it try to find its audience.

I hope to do that soon.

Thanks for reading.

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I write this amid a bunch of holiday-related runnings around so this will be another short ‘un. I suspect I’ll write rather more next week.

It’s the Christmas season, so of course there is a lot of focus on gifts, given and received. I have been fortunate enough to receive more than my fair share, this year and through my life. Hopefully I’ve given a few of value in return.

Among the very best gifts I have ever gotten is writing, wherever it came from. I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘I am good at it’, I mean that in terms of what writing does for me. It is indescribably cool (although I do keep trying) to create stories of people and things and places. I am delighted to share a great many of my stories with people, but I have stories that will never be told to anyone.

For a few years I had my own imaginary football league filled with teams and players, each with their own tales that will always be just for me. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been privileged to share two big pieces of my imagination with the whole world.  Very different in many ways, but the essential process is the same.  Creating stories makes some crystal thing deep inside me hum in just the right fashion; there is no substitute and nothing I would substitute for it. There is no feeling quite like writing my imaginary people into being, and then of course there is no pleasure quite like having someone read a thing I wrote and say that they’re glad they did.

Thank you all for reading something of mine. I’ll be so very pleased if you continue.


Just (literally) finished watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special and the exit of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I suspect I may have a lot of thoughts about it all eventually, but on the whole it was a different kind of exit for a different iteration of the Doctor. I look forward to the next telling of the tale.

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So, About that Top 5

The other day my friend and fellow writer Brandon Crilly and I were hanging out and, perhaps inevitably, got to talking about writing we’ve enjoyed, and that got us to talking about TV shows we’ve both enjoyed, and we both mentioned shows that ‘would be in our Top 5’. That of course got me thinking about what my actual Top 5 would be, and I didn’t have a topic for the blog this week, so here we go.

My main criteria for picking anything here was that I couldn’t pick and choose parts of a series. So, for example, much as I love the first few seasons of X-Files, it was never going to make this list because it really dies hard in the later seasons.

Bear in mind that I haven’t actually seen every show ever, so if your favourite isn’t here, that may well be why.

Bear in mind that you can also just fight me.

I think these are in order? Maybe. I guess there may be spoilers.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 Series)

Right out of the gate we’re probably in trouble. I know a lot of people didn’t like where this series ended up, but I thought it was perfect. Yes, even the last episode. I can’t really think of another series that gave me so many characters that I genuinely cared about, did character development as believably and well as this did, and went to some dark and difficult places without ever quite turning the light out entirely. None of the characters were two-dimensional. Starbuck is still my favourite.

Person of Interest

I wrote about this series once before, so I’ll just briefly reiterate – this seemed as though it was going to be the most procedural procedural that ever procedured. It wasn’t. Person of Interest turned out to be really thoughtful SF about AI and a surveillance society, and the ethics of both. It also had really, really good characters, and really, really good performances again. Michael Emerson is good in everything I see him in.


I came into this show thinking, as I think a lot of people did, that it was basically going to be an X-Files knockoff. For a couple episodes it kind of was an X-Files knockoff. Then it took a huuuuge left turn and never looked back. It ended up being nothing like any other show on TV. It was hilarious, it was disgusting, it was genuinely disturbing, and like BSG, it made you care. It had tremendous sustained performances from Anna Torv and John Noble. Even crunching the timeline of the series down by several seasons, it told its story well and ended it on just the right note. Absent everything else, ‘White Tulip’ is a fantastic SFF story. Fringe did not get nearly the attention it deserved, and it was some of the best SFF television we’ve had.

Orphan Black

I didn’t even really know what this show was going to be about, I just kept hearing ‘man you’ve gotta watch Orphan Black‘. I finally did. Holy crap this show was good. So much of it hinged on the amazing performances of Tatiana Maslany in pulling off portraying all of the various Leda clones, but the story being told was genuinely original and genuinely very well done. Again, they gave us amazing characters that you couldn’t help but get invested in. The transformation of Helena from an almost Michael Myers like threat into a beloved ally was beautifully done. The writers introduced a cold, manipulative villainess in Rachel, got you to care about her, and then got you to buy her as a villain again. Orphan Black wobbled just a little in its last season, but it was still so so good.

Doctor Who

Ok this one was a little tricky to leave on the list, because honestly, if you look at the whole immense size of the series, you’ve gotta say that the quality is more than a little uneven. There are, I will admit, some truly awful episodes in there. I’ve talked before about how sometimes the special effects, well, they reflect the budget the show had at the time. ‘Continuity’ is a very vague sort of concept for the show at all, by this point.

And yet. When I think about the TV show that probably has more to do with me being a fan of SFF today, and someone who writes fantastic stories, it’s Doctor Who and it isn’t close. I was never that into Star Trek (sorry), and my Star Wars fandom came a little bit later. I started out watching shows from before I was born on PBS Sunday afternoons, and just got terribly, terribly hooked. Tom Baker will always be ‘my’ Doctor, but I truly like them all and I like all the various eras the show has gone through. It wins huge points for longevity and for continuing to find new stories to tell about an itinerant busybody alien and the people who wander around time and space with them. I forgive it its misses because among the hits are things like ‘the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alters their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit the views’, which is really very good. And also ‘You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner”.

Doctor Who is good.

Missed the Cut:

The Americans: This was very, very, very close. I love this show and I love the writing on this show. Partly I cut it because this is otherwise an SFF list and I like that, because ‘genre TV’ tends not to get the same critical respect as other shows do. Also though, as much as I adore the main storyline, in the last couple seasons there have been some plotlines I am not spellbound by. Watch The Americans, though.

Stranger Things: You know I love this show. It didn’t quite make it because I feel like I need to see more of the story the Duffers are creating to really evaluate it yet. Season 1 was damn near perfect, but now they’re working on a bigger vision that we haven’t had fully revealed yet. Maybe this one gets shuffled up in a few years.

Both Jericho and Deadwood were series that I thought had very nearly perfect first seasons, but didn’t maintain that quality throughout. Lost was a series I thought was awesome out of the gate and then by the end was watching out of spite. I’m still kind of bitter. I thought the writers of Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles were trying to do some genuinely bold and interesting stuff, but they had some really heavy misses and then the show got cancelled. One day I’d like to pick the writers’ brains about what they would have done. Before you ask, I haven’t had a chance to see Westworld yet. I hear it’s very good. I also haven’t seen The Wire.

Brandon tells me these blog entries are too long. I’m stopping. Thanks for reading. Come fight me in the comments if you want.

More importantly, go check out Brandon’s blog and work here.

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Doctor 13

I was going to try to take a bit of a break from Doctor Who posts, and then they went and revealed who the Thirteenth Doctor is going to be, and it’s enough of a big deal that I felt like I should probably write a bit about it.

If you haven’t seen the news (an unlikely happenstance), with the departure of Peter Capaldi from the lead role, the BBC has cast a woman to play the Doctor for the first time, and selected Jodie Whittaker for the role. There was, I suppose predictably, A Fuss.

My first reaction, I have to admit, was to be a bit perplexed, only because I had only seen her in Broadchurch and her character there was not what I would have thought of being particularly Doctor-y. But my brain gradually lurched into action, realized that they didn’t cast Beth Latimer as the Doctor, they cast the actor, and her performance was (to the extent that I’m really qualified to judge) was really good. I’m given to understand that she’s similarly good in the other things that she’s done, so at that point I figured they’d done a good job and started trying to figure out when we’d get new episodes.

Then I started to see the reactions people were having, and I don’t mean the people having meltdowns for various reasons. I mean the reactions from people (primarily, but not only, girls and women) for whom having a woman as the Doctor clearly meant so much. People were moved to tears. People were overwhelmed with joy. It was like a tidal wave of happiness that you didn’t have to look very hard to find. I read people (former Doctor Colin Baker among them) writing about how much this meant to their daughters.

It’s not always easy to realize how significant something may be to another person who has a far different perspective on the world than you do. We can say a lot of bad things about the internet, but it was great to have this easy insight into what the casting meant to others, and I got progressively more excited about it as the reaction became clearer. It seems pretty inarguable to me that the show has done a very good thing by casting Whittaker in the role if only for the sheer amount of joy that one act created. Hopefully this will be followed up on by a really strong series of stories that can reinforce all the positives that came just from seeing a woman in the role – seeing a woman actively be the Doctor, saving worlds and thwarting Daleks and generally doing the impossible.

I do hope the stories are good. I mean, selfishly I do, because I love the show and I love good stories. I also think that the writers are under an unfair kind of pressure here, one that I don’t envy them at all. Because if the reaction to the new series is not good, there will be all too many people who will quickly say that it is because of having a female lead, just as movies with female leads have tended to carry some extra pressure with them – if it bombs, we’ll never get to make another one. (Hopefully this is a situation that is starting to change) Never mind the number of projects with male leads that get made and are terrible, with a zillion similar projects still getting greenlit. Mostly I hope that Jodie Whittaker is able to enjoy her time in the role and the writers are just able to do what they do and that it all goes very well.

I guess I have one other thought. I’ve seen several people say that they hope that the issue of the Doctor being female isn’t part of the stories, and I can kind of see what they mean. Certainly, a bunch of lame jokes about the situation won’t help anything. However, thinking about this from a writing perspective, this is a character who has been alive for centuries, and – in most interpretations of things – this is the first time they’ve ever been female. It feels like there’s got to be really good stories to tell about that.

In any case, I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with. It’s always fun seeing a new actor’s take on the Doctor, and the more I think about the idea of a female Doctor, the more I think that there are really exciting stories to be told, and I’m very enthusiastic to see what ideas they’ve got. Hopefully by the time the series is ready to go, most of the Fuss will have died down and people will just be ready to enjoy what they’ve done.

Part of the interesting question here is why people care so much. Part of it, no doubt, is simply that Doctor Who is one of the most famous SF franchises of all time, and so people would like to see it continue to embrace more diversity in the characters it creates, actors it employs, and stories it tells. It’s also true that because of the in-built ‘regeneration’ mechanic, it was (or arguably, should have been) really easy to diversify the lead role. The Doctor completely redoes their body on a reasonably regular basis to begin with.*

Personally, the reason I spend as much time as I do thinking about Doctor Who is that it is one of the foundation stones of my love of SFF. I’ve spent a lot of time with all these characters and stories and so, yeah, I probably think a bit more about what it all means than is probably necessary, and I want the series to continue to do awesome stuff in the same way I want my favourite sports teams to pile up winning seasons.

That’s it. Thanks for reading. Something other than Doctor Who next week, I promise.

*-In my private version of things, the other Time Lords look on the Doctor with a kind of horror at the number of bodies they’ve run through, due to the crazy lifestyle they’ve chosen to follow. So the Doctor has regenerated a lot more than most Time Lords ever do. Except the Master, of course.

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I have a couple not-really-related things for this week. It’s inelegant, but I’m sure we’ll cope.

First, although things have been a little Doctor Who heavy of late, I’m going there again; Orphan Black hasn’t thrilled me so far and I am not the right person to write about Handmaid’s Tale. The series just wrapped up giving us our next-to-last Capaldi story and (one assumes) the last to feature a companion who we really just met, Bill Potts.

The story with Bill’s exit was, I thought, pretty darned well done. The original flavour Cybermen were back and were genuinely disturbing. (Vastly superior to their newer reimaginings, but maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog) We finally had a story with more than one incarnation of the Master in it, and it went exactly as it should, with the Masters stabbing each other in the back. I’m not sure the resolution really made a great deal of sense if you really think about it, but it’s not hard SF and you probably just shouldn’t.

Bill herself, though, went through quite the ordeal. First shot through the chest, then isolated from the Doctor for like ten years in a creepy alien hospital, then betrayed by the one friend she thought she had and horrifically transformed into a Cyberman. Oh, and then she died. There’s been some criticism of this (probably not unjustifiably so) because we had a lesbian POC character and she meets a grisly end; this seems to fit into the ‘Kill Your Gays’ trope that many writers are criticized for.

I’m not the right person to write about that either, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes that Bill’s consciousness survives, apparently off to explore the universe with the mind of her girlfriend from the series premiere. However that may be, the whole thing is in line with the exits of recent Doctor Who companions, who have of late ended their journeys in spectacular fashion. Clara died, or will, and the Doctor loses his memories of her. The Ponds are banished through time and stranded there. Donna gets her memories of her time with the Doctor wiped out. Rose gets sent to an alternate universe. Of revival-era companions, only Martha leaves on her own terms. Usually, the only way someone stops traveling with the Doctor is if there is some kind of traumatic, cataclysmic severing of the relationship.

It didn’t use to be this way. Ian and Barbara, the original companions, just decided they’d really like to go home. Liz Shaw got tired of being a sidekick and quit. Jo Grant decided to get married. Sarah Jane breaks the pattern a bit – the Doctor isn’t allowed to take her to Gallifrey – but then my favourite companion, Leela, starts it again. She leaves (also to get married, which is a bit ugh), and on Gallifrey, which is a great example of why you shouldn’t worry overmuch about Doctor Who continuity. On it goes: Nyssa leaves to help the sick on Terminus, Tegan just reaches a point where she can’t stand the terrors she has to face, Turlough just goes home.

Adric, of course, dies, but the point is this – it didn’t use to require a cataclysm for a companion to stop traveling with the Doctor. A lot of them just decided to do something else. As I thought about this, I wondered what the reason for the change could be, and I wonder if at least part of it has to do with how we, in the audience see things. We watch Doctor Who and think: ‘If I could travel with the Doctor, I’d never want to stop. Look how amazing!’ It’s fun and attractive to think about in the same way that a lot of fantastic scenarios are fun to think about: selling all your stuff and moving to a cabin in the woods, or an RV, joining the merchant marine, whatever. I wonder if, at least a little, the writers of the current show are putting that essentially fan-born mindset into the characters they’re creating, so that they also can’t imagine wanting to stop wandering around in the TARDIS.

I’m not sure if the older series did a better job conveying the down side of being, essentially, space vagrants, if this is a consequence of the revival show having a (generally? arguably?) lighter tone or (I think inarguably) deifying the Doctor more, or what the reason may be, but it interests me as a fan and it interests me as a writer.

As a writer, the main thing is that as much as we often need our characters to go on perilous, exciting adventures and do nerve-wracking things (that kind of thrilling, escapist experience being a big part of what fiction is for), I think it’s also important to show some of the difficulties with these things. It’s not all a fantastic adventure; it’s difficult to leave the comfortable and familiar to go do something dangerous, and most people can only take so much tension and alarm before they simply can’t do it anymore, as happened with Tegan. People also often just decide that they’re ready to Stop Doing A Thing now, no matter how much they loved the thing to begin with. Time to move on. I think that’s a useful lesson too.

Obviously different types of stories and genres will look at these issues to different extents and get into them more or less, but I think it makes things feel much more genuine if it’s at least a minor part of the story. Even The Hobbit, which is basically a lighthearted fantasy tale, has Bilbo fret about leaving home a little bit. We think as fans that if Gandalf showed up on our doorstep we’d be all ‘yes please’, but in practice if someone turned up and said it was time to Go and Do A Thing Immediately, my guess is that most of us would have at least some trepidations, and probably be glad when it was over, and we could go back to the world we understood just a little bit better.

This is not to say that I think the original series handled things better, exactly, although I think it’s less than ideal if the new series continues to have companions only leave for horrifying and/or spectacular reasons. I will also be interested to see what the writers do with the Doctor’s reaction to Bill’s departure, because (based on what we saw) as far as he knows, there was no happy ending for Bill and she’s either dead or stuck forever as a Cyberman. This, for me, is the main problem with always having companions leave mostly dead, kind of dead, or permanently damaged – the Doctor is fundamentally a decent person, and so you’d think after a good run of these he would simply say ‘no, not doing this any more. Can’t justify it.’

In any case, I await the Christmas special with interest and for what little it’s worth I’m sorry to see both Capaldi and Pearl Mackie leave. This season really worked well and I would have enjoyed more stories with the both of them. (Also, again, Michelle Gomez’ Missy.)


Ok, other thing real quick. This is not (I swear) going to turn into a running analogy, but I really can’t escape the conclusion that similar to how you need to warm up before serious exercise if it’s going to go as well as it can, I sort of need to warm up to writing as well. When I first sit down to write it goes very slowly. I write, like, a sentence. Then I urgently need to go Do Another Thing. I come back. I probably erase the sentence. I try it again. Another Thing calls again. This goes on, sometimes, for some length of time.

Then, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there is very nearly an audible thunk from the mind-gears and abruptly, we are in Writing Mode and things flow much more easily. The whole process is a bit mysterious to me and vastly annoying if I have, say, two hours to get some writing in and the thunk doesn’t happen until an hour of Another Thing, but this is how it goes.

This is a consistent pattern to the point that I don’t think I can put it down to mood, state of mind, or the current project. It’s apparently just how my brain works (or fails to) and I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom this is true. No doubt there is, out there, a psychologist or similar brain science person who knows exactly what processes are going on, or failing to go on, in this situation.

I don’t mention this because I have any particular answer or method for improvement, or really any insight derived from it. I mention it because for a long while I definitely added to my stress by worrying over this whole warming-up process, and that it meant I was doing something wrong or not adequately prepared or motivated or whatever. I don’t think it does. I think it just means that your process is your process, and as much as possible you need to just not worry about whether it’s right or correct and just sort of do what works, do what gets words on the page in the end.

When I write, I gotta warm up to it. This is how it is.

This is also fearsomely close to advice, so I’ll call it here.

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I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.

(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)

I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.

In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.

I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally.   Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down.  Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.

Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.

This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.

I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.

There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’

I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.

I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?

Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.

I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.


I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’

In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes.  Squirm squirm.)

All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.

I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.

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Blake’s 7

Late last week, we got the news that Gareth Thomas, who played Roj Blake on the BBC series Blake’s 7, had died. I never met Mr. Thomas, and nor have I seen a great many interviews with him, so I can’t say very much about the man himself, which is my loss. I did watch Blake’s 7, a good bit after it had originally aired I guess, among some of the stuff my local PBS channel would show on weekend afternoons. I don’t think I ever saw any of the episodes more than once, and I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen them all. I’ve still never forgotten it.

Blake’s 7 was a very different sort of show than most of its time, and I think you can see its fingerprints all over many SFF series that came after it. Very basically, the show is set in a time when the galaxy is controlled by a tyrannical human empire, and tells the story of a small group of escaped convicts who set out to overthrow it. So far, nothing exactly off the charts, especially when you consider that it’s essentially Robin Hood in space, with the super fast starship Liberator serving as the Sherwood Forest-y refuge that is always there for the rebels, assuming they can reach it.

Or so it seems. The concept of Blake’s 7 may not sound especially unusual, but boy did they do very different stuff with it, almost right out of the gate. Rather unlike most other SFF shows (and, I guess, shows of other genres) on at the time (think: Star Trek and Doctor Who and the original Battlestar Galactica) where the main characters are all friends and resolutely on each others’ side, the crew of the Liberator are certainly not. Gareth Thomas’ Blake and the other (arguably) main character, Kerr Avon (a treasure of a creation, even if Younger Me was eventually disappointed that everyone had not, in fact, been saying ‘Evan’) don’t even really like each other. They argue, they disagree in terms of what is moral and what is practical, and generally give the impression that they aren’t so much a team as they are stuck with each other. I remember watching the first episode, and waiting for all this to smooth out in some kind of Moment that would create the band of happy comrades that would carry the series onward. It didn’t happen. It never happens. This was amazing.

The show continues to not follow the rules as it goes along. It deals with a lot of morally very grey decisions, and once you’ve watched for a while you never really feel secure in anything, because of the decisions the writers were prepared to have happen. Our heroes screw up.  Fairly early on, one of the Seven gets killed. This was entirely unanticipated by Young Me – Bones never gets killed! Even, like, Chekov always gets back to the Enterprise safe. Doctor Who occasionally killed off companions, but usually they got a relatively pleasant exit, and the Doctor himself always has the regeneration get-out-of-death card in his hand. But Gan, the big good-hearted strong guy (there’s that Robin Hood parallel again) just died and there was no SFF magic to undo it and bring him back.

Little did I know what the rest of that series had in store, because by the end of it Blake and another of the Seven go missing and Avon takes control of the Liberator. Again, I was waiting for this to get undone and the status quo restored as most shows would do. Nope. Jenna, the other crew member, is (I believe) never seen again. Blake doesn’t return until the series finale, which I’ll get to in a minute. The Liberator ends up getting destroyed. I mean, can you imagine? Yes, the remains of the Seven do get another ship to tool around in, but on (again) Star Trek if the Enterprise blows up or something happens to the captain (any of them) you know that this is getting undone or fixed relatively quickly. The reveal of Picard as Locutus of Borg was a cool moment, but we were watching Star Trek and you know that shit is getting fixed. Blake’s 7 never gave you that certainty that a comforting status quo would continue on.

And then, there’s that ending. I suppose spoilers are a fairly silly thing to worry about for a ~30 year old show, but I really don’t want to say everything about it in case there’s a chance that you haven’t seen Blake’s 7 and decide you’d like to. (I’m also not very good at summarizing) I will just say that while conventions might lead you to expect that the evil Federation (yeah, they called it that) would be overthrown at the end, that’s not the resolution that you get. Instead you get Kerr Avon in a hail of bullets (well, laser blasts) and fade to black. It probably makes sense as an ending for the story of a insurgent rebellion against a superpower, but I remember sitting there, watching the credits with the gunfire sounds running over them instead of the show theme, and thinking that PBS must have had it wrong and this couldn’t possibly be the last episode. They didn’t. It was. Holy crap.

I’ve written a bunch of times here about how, these days, I like a happy ending, and that’s true. But I think I’ve also said that you can write bleak, difficult stories and do them well and have them work well for readers or viewers, and even though the mood of Blake’s 7 isn’t the kind of story I would write these days, I think it is a great example of grimness done right. Tough things happen to the characters, but you never get the sense that it’s gratuitous, it’s a consequence of the very full-contact game they happen to be playing. The characters are wonderfully complex and flawed and not all lovable Good Guys, but they also all give you a reason to like them on some level and to care about what happens to them. You eventually realize that selfish, scheming, untrusting Avon on some level talks a good game about not giving a damn about anyone other than himself but that the truth is more nuanced than that, underneath. These are not typically heroic characters, not even Gareth Thomas’ Blake, but the writers remembered to make them people that we still want to follow around as see what happens to them.

I should say one other thing about Blake’s 7 while I’m talking about it, although this entry is getting pretty darned long. The BBC, at this time, was making exciting shows like this, and Doctor Who, with budgets of about a buck ninety five an episode, and admittedly they sometimes look it, in terms of the sets and special effects. Alien worlds often come down to ‘this set of corridors’ or ‘shot outdoors in a quarry again’. Costumes and props and sets get reused and recycled between episodes and even between shows – the helmets that Blake’s 7’s Federation jackbooted thugs wear showed up on a later episode of Doctor Who, for example.

I was recently watching an old episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor and Sarah Jane are wandering through the TARDIS, and the walls are very clearly rather hastily painted wood. There’s no way they’re anything else. You can see the brush strokes in the grey paint. Another episode from not too much later in the series has a character infected with a horrible alien space disease, and when this is revealed he turns around to show off an arm wrapped in green-dyed bubble wrap. You recognize it right away. This is the key moment where either you can be a fan of shows like this, or you can’t.

Now some people can’t handle this; they see the shoestring effects and either can’t stop laughing (which is not an entirely unjustifiable reaction) or dismiss the shows as garbage (which I would argue is). It never bothered me, and I’m not entirely sure why. I mean, yes, I didn’t have the modern CGI and amazing effects that even network TV shows get to compare it to, at that point, but even so, bubble wrap is still bubble wrap, and it never bothered me. There was the dramatic music sting, the reaction of the other characters, and this guy acting his pants off that something awful was happening to him, and I just followed along.

I think that this is because SFF stories are always asking you to use your imagination. It’s part of the deal, isn’t it? No matter how well they dress it up, the writers and actors are still asking you to believe that they’re on an alien planet when they’re in a forest in BC, that the prop in their hands is an arcane relic, and that the guy in a weird suit is an unimaginable horror. You either buy that, and get into the story, or you don’t. Sometimes it seems to me creators of movies and TV and books forget this, and worry too much about the effects and the world building when they don’t have a good story, or good characters, yet.

I think that when the writing is good, the characters and plot are compelling, you can get your viewers or readers to buy in to whatever strange and fantastic concepts you’re trying to sell them on, and if the writing is no good, it won’t work, detailed description or amazing effects notwithstanding. I think this connects back to what I was talking about with the idea of how much world building you need – I will not be thinking ‘Gosh, I’m not sure I believe the economic base of this society is sustainable’ if you’ve given me a great story. I will not be thinking ‘well, I don’t think you could build a device that would do that’ if the device was built by an awesome character using their device to do something rad. Just like I wasn’t thinking ‘dang, that’s just bubble wrap’ during that episode of Doctor Who. The story was good, I was in, and I was fine with the narrative that the poor guy had a terrible space disease. Let’s go.

Even more tenuously, I wonder if this goes back to playing games with your friends as little kids. No-one really had a ray gun, we either had something plastic or a piece of wood that you painted up. We had cardboard box spaceships, maybe with some foil on there. The back yard was an alien planet. The HQ of Earth Defence Command was the garage, or the tool shed, and no-one said that it looked fake because we were busy imagining. I think shows that are done well in terms of writing and the actors’ performances get us Busy Imagining again and then the effects almost don’t matter so much. I mean, if you had bubble wrap on your arm in your back yard space games, you totally had a space disease.

So, to wrap things up for this week, I want to thank Gareth Thomas and everyone who was involved in Blake’s 7 for giving me a great show that changed a lot of my expectations about how TV shows and fiction might work, and certainly had my imagination running full speed. You had me Busy Imagining, and I’m not sure that’s something I can ever say ‘thank you’ enough for.

Now I should probably get Busy Writing, which of course also involves being Busy Imagining.

I gotta have something happen in a quarry.

Thanks for reading.

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