Thursday, November 24, 2011

First Wave interview

Daniel Tostevin interviewed me about my Doctor Who story The First Wave for the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine. But I wittered on so much that he had bits of what I said left over. He has published my additional wittering on the official Daniel Tostevin website.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy birthday Doctor Who, love AAAGH!

AAAGH! celebrate's Doctor Who's 48th birthday today in a bit of silliness written by me and illustrated by Brian Williamson. Doctor Who Adventures #244 is still in shops for another day, and includes a whole bunch of old-skool stuff, including mention of Koquillion.

As always, this AAAGH! was edited by Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes and posted here with their kind permission. You can also read all my AAAGH!s.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blake box

For your delight and delectation, here is Anthony Lamb's cover for Blake's 7: The Liberator Chronicles, which includes The Turing Test - written by me and starring Paul Darrow as Avon and Michael Keating as Vila. It's out in February 2012.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Finished my chum Matthew Sweet's The West End Front this morning. It's a magnificent, funny and strange collection of stories about London's posh hotels during the Second World War (though he freely extends the scope when it means another good story). It was Book of the Week on Radio 4 last week - you've still a chance to hear Kenneth Cranham reading choice cuts on iPlayer.

Matthew has interviewed more than 100 people - those who were there at the time, or the families of those who have since died. The result is a gleefully gossipy account of some often shocking incidents, carefully backed up with solid documentary research.

The book undermines the sentimental view of the Second World War, the idea of a nation steadfastly keeping calm and carrying on, all stiff-upper lips and good humour. There's scandal and skulduggery, scoundrels, sex and death. Some of the events make for very uncomfortable reading. But really this is a testament to the strangeness of real life - in an extraordinary period of history and anyway. Matthew's got a good eye for the incongruous detail, the grotesque detail, that conjures the period vividly.

There's a wealth of top facts, too. Captain Leonard Plugge, Conservative MP for Chatham, gave his name to any "brazen commercialism in the media". Crooner Al Bowlly (whose work I adore) was killed by his own bedroom door. There's the extraordinary image of Winston Churchill, no longer Prime Minister and so no longer living at Downing Street, installed in the penthouse at Claridges because, his wife said, "We have nowhere to go". It is there, on a borrowed wireless, that he heard the news of Japanese surrender.
"'Then he went out into the rain and there were three old ladies under an umbrella who had heard he was there and gave him a cheer.'"

Philip Murphy, Alan Lennox-Boyd: A Biography (1999), quoted in Matthew Sweet, The West End Front, p. 286.

Many of the lively characters Matthew speaks of - and spoke to - have died, and as he argues the Second World War is now passing out of living memory. This chance to capture and record these fleeting ghosts before they are fully gone is utterly compelling.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dream the myth onwards

Here's the introduction I wrote to the book of academic papers, The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who (2010) - available as a paperback and on Kindle and things.
Dream the myth onwards
Simon Guerrier

Do stories matter if we know they're not true?

That seems to be central to the idea of myth. They are stories that matter. Ken Dowden, in his book The Uses of Greek Mythology, argues that “myths are believed, but not in the same way that history is”(1). If they were true they would be history. But stories still illuminate the truth.

The father of psychoanalysis certainly thought so. Sigmund Freud used the stories of ancient mythology to illuminate aspects of the human condition. Most famously, he named a group of unconscious and repressed desires after the mythical king of Thebes, Oedipus.

The story of Oedipus has been retold since at least the 5th Century BC. By linking to it, Freud suggested that the desires he'd uncovered were not new or localised. They were universal.

Freud was clearly fascinated by myth. His former home in London – now a museum – contains nearly 2,000 antiquities illustrating myths from the Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome and China, many lined up on the desk where he worked. He argued that psychoanalysis could be applied to more than just a patient's dreams, but to “products of ethnic imagination such as myths and fairy tales” (2).

But, as Dowden points out, you can only psychoanalyse where there is a psyche. Who are we analysing when we probe ancient myths – which have been retold for thousands of years? Do we examine a myth as the dream of an original, single author, or of the culture that author belonged to? Dowden argues that “psychoanalytic interpretation of myth can only work if it reveals prevalent, or even universal, deep concerns of a larger cultural group”(3).

He also quotes Carl Jung, who developed the idea of the “collective unconscious”, a series of archetypal images that we all share in the preconscious psyche and which, as a result, appear regularly in our myths. Jung warned against efforts to interpret the meanings of these images: “the most we can do is dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress”(4).

That seems to me what Doctor Who does, retelling old stories in new ways, surprising us with the familiar. The archetypes of Doctor Who – the invasion, the base under siege, the person taken over by an alien force, regeneration – have been embedded for decades. Yet the series keeps finding new ways to present them, and new perspectives and insights along the way.

That's also true of this book, probing the Doctor's adventures for new perspectives and insights. The essays contained here don't take Doctor Who as the dream of one single author whose unconscious desires can now be exposed. Instead, it probes our shared mythology as Doctor Who fans – of which the TV show is just a part – to explore our own cultural unconscious.

“Myth” means many things in this book. It's any fiction with a ring of truth. It's any story with cultural of psychological value. It's any work with staying power, whose themes and ideas are still relevant generations after the first telling. It's the established, fictional history of characters and worlds, the “continuity” so often complex and contradictory. It's the moment at which a character becomes a hero or even a god. It's anything we want it to be.

And that is why it's so revealing.

(1) Dowden, Ken, The Uses of Greek Mythology, London: Routledge 2000 [1992], p. 3.
(2) Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo, Leipzig and Vienna: 1913, English translation ed. J Strachey London 1955. Cited in Dowden, p. 30.
(3) Dowden, p. 31
(4) Jung, Carl and Kerényi, C, Science of Mythology: Essays on the myth of the divine child and the mysteries of Eleusis, 1949, English translation, cited in Dowden, p. 32
Thanks to editor Anthony S Burdge and Anne Petty at Kitsune Books for permission to post it here. I landed the Doctor in ancient Greece in my book, The Slitheen Excursion - where he met what might be the real people who inspired the myths of Athena, Noah and the Medusa, amongst others.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Re: Re: The First Wave



[Whopping great spoilers for my recently released Doctor Who story, The First Wave, follow.]

[End of spoiler warning.]

Hello Rose

First I should thank you. Your post is full of nice things about my writing generally. You call me “educated and intelligent”, which is not something I hear a lot. So thanks for those bits.

You clearly don't like The First Wave, and I don't intend to try to persuade you otherwise. But you make a number of claims that I don't think are fair. So I'll address those.

You make a lot of comments about Big Finish generally. I don't speak for Big Finish – what follows are my own opinions – and I'm not going to guess what producers or writers were thinking or trying to do. But there are openly gay and bisexual characters in several Big Finish Doctor Who stories, as well as in related ranges such as Bernice Summerfield and Graceless.

My own experience is that it's tricky writing an openly gay character in a Doctor Who audio story. There's already a lot to set up in a Doctor Who audio: a new location in time and space, created entirely from what characters tell us about it; a plot that hasn't been done before in all the hundreds of TV episodes, books, comics and other audios; an exciting monster and lots of jeopardy. Into that must go the Doctor and TV companion – and under the terms of Big Finish's licence with the BBC, they must be as they appeared on TV.

That doesn't leave a great deal of room for anyone else, so other characters tend to be sketched in lightly – character types that the listener can quickly visualise. I'd argue that we're rarely told the sexuality of any of the characters, heterosexual or otherwise.

Oliver Harper gets more depth than most because I created him as a new companion who'd appear in three stories. But his life and background are still quickly and lightly established. And that means it's tricky to avoid tokenism and cliché, to make him a character rather than a label or manifesto. You kindly praise my efforts in Oliver's previous two stories. Thank you.

But you don't like The First Wave specifically because I “stereotypically, pointlessly, offensively” killed off Oliver, who is gay. I'm sorry for causing any offence. You direct me to the TV tropes page on the “bury your gays” cliché. It's a good, fun piece that makes important points. But look again at what that page says:
“Please note that sometimes gay characters die in fiction because in fiction sometimes people die (this is particularly true of soldiers at war, where Sitch Sexuality and Anyone Can Die are both common tropes); this isn't an if-then correlation, and it's not always meant to "teach us something" or indicative of some prejudice on the part of the creator - particularly if it was written after 1960. The problem isn't when gay characters are killed off: the problem is when gay characters are killed off far more often than straight characters, or when they're killed off because they are gay. This trope therefore won't apply to a series where anyone can die (and does).”
“Anyone can die (and does)” is a good summary of the era of Doctor Who in which The First Wave is set. By “era”, I mean Season Three – not, as you argue, the First Doctor's adventures as a whole. In that season, Katarina and Sara die, Anne Chaplet (a sort-of companion in The Massacre) is apparently killed, Vicki is written out during a bloody battle that leaves Steven badly wounded, and Dodo vanishes off-screen having had her brain scrambled.

Actor Peter Purves discusses how abruptly the cast were let go in this period on DVD documentaries on The Ark and The Gunfighters – both of which I worked on. The production team even tried to write out William Hartnell as the Doctor in The Celestial Toymaker, before doing so a few months later in The Tenth Planet. There's a sense in this season that no one is safe and no one gets a happy ending. Steven's own exit from the series in The Savages could have been happy – he goes off to be a king – but that's not how it's played. So what happens to Oliver is perfectly in keeping with the series at the time (something the terms of our licence with the BBC requires).

What's more, a new companion gives us a lot of freedom. Not only can I make him a stockbroker and gay, but I also don't have to return him safely at the end of a story to where he was at the start. That's something we have to do with the TV characters under the terms of our licence. So part of the appeal of creating a new companion is that the listener doesn't know how things will end – or if he will survive.

That's the central point of the three plays featuring Oliver: anyone can die, and the longer they stay with the Doctor, the more they're on borrowed time. The phrase “borrowed time” appears in all the stories, and The First Wave would have been called Borrowed Time had there not already been an Eleventh Doctor novel called that. From that starting point, I tried to write an adventure that was exciting and also moving. You're meant to like Oliver, and not like him dying.

You object to Oliver's “noble self-sacrificing death to save the main [i.e., heterosexual] characters”*. I don't think you're arguing that he should have died ignobly – perhaps screaming for mercy or siding with the villains. And I don't think you're arguing that I've killed him off because he's gay. I think you're arguing that because he's gay I should treat him differently from any other character. You want me to discriminate.

You praise my previous story, The Cold Equations, because Oliver's “sexuality wasn’t constantly brought up, it was just a fact about him.” But I'd argue that you've made his death – and the scene where he helps Steven dress up in The Perpetual Bond – all about his being gay.

I don't expect any of this to change your mind. But remember that I brought Sara Kingdom back from the dead. The return of Oliver Harper would be a cinch.

All the best,


(* I could also point out, pedantically, that the show offers little evidence that the Doctor or Steven are specially heterosexual. But anyway.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

AAAGH! at the gym

AAAGH! Forest of Cheem run a gymAnother AAAGH! from Doctor Who Adventures #243 - in shops till yesterday. This one features Jabe the tree from The End of the World and the Minotaur from The God Complex. (Sadly excised to make it all fit was the First Doctor in vest and shorts on a treadmill muttering that "*Puff!* This old body's wearing a bit thin. *Pant!*")

As ever, the script is by me, the art by Brian Williamson, and the editing my Paul Lang and Natalie Barnes - who also gave kind permission for me to post it here. A special birthday AAAGH! next week. You can also read all the AAAGH!s I've written.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two covers

Some forthcoming things by me:

Doctor Who: The Anachronauts stars Jean Marsh and Peter Purves, directed by Ken Bentley. Cover by Iain Robertson.

Graceless 2 stars Ciara Janson, Laura Doddington, Fraser James and Derek Griffiths, directed by Lisa Bowerman. Cover and design by Alex Mallinson.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Loads of things we learned about making short films

Cleaning Up won Best Thriller at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival this weekend. Brother Tom and I had an amazing time in York, seeing loads of the 150 short films shown, comparing notes with lots of spectacularly talented film-makers and wannabe film-makers, and generally larking about.

As a result of all the nattering, we've realised how much we've learned by making our film – and stolen from all the clever people we've worked with.

Calling card
Short films are a way to get noticed, to get more – or different – work, and to prove that your idea for a TV series or film really works. Make your short representative of the things you want to do next.

We spent a day as runners on Danny Stack's Origin and two days as coppers on James Moran and Dan Turner's Girl Number Nine. That gave us a good sense of what to expect, plus we learned loads of practical things that helped us set up our film and make the shoot run smoothly. We also nicked Danny's producer, one of James and Dan's stars, and loads of crew from both.

Watch all the short films you can. Go to the festivals. Buy the DVDs of award-winning shorts. If you've got a particular genre or audience in mind, research it and find out what other people are doing. Most festivals will put your film in a group with a similar theme (we've been shown as a thriller, a comedy, and as part of a group called “wrong place, wrong time”).

No matter how much of a film buff you are, the festival programmers will have seen more films than you. A festival can easily receive 1,000 to 7,000 submissions. What makes your comedy, horror, fantasy any different from the hundreds of others? What are you doing that's better? Watching lots of film, you’ll see they usually all very well made. And then one makes you sit up and take notice. How can you make your film do that?

Are you making a genre piece – comedy, horror, thriller? That can help you place your film with the festivals, sell it to an audience, build a following. Having watched a huge number of shorts now, comedy is clearly the hardest to get right – and there's nothing worse than an audience sitting stony-faced waiting for a comedy to end. But when it's right, when it works, you can be the talk of the festival.

Good script
We watched a lot of short films before making ours. A lot of people will tell you that it's easier to make films now – you can even get mobile phones that record in HD. But that makes it all the harder to stand out from the rest. A lot of short films look beautiful and are stylishly played and edited. But the thing that makes the best ones stand out is that they have good scripts. Commission a writer, as Tom did, to write something an audience will remember.

It also helped that we had a professional TV writer as our script editor. Joseph Lidster made me work very hard: the script for Cleaning Up went through more than 20 drafts.

Why should anyone care?
You need to ask this a lot. Will the basic idea of your film grab people? Will the tag line? Will the names of the actors help sell the film? Are the roles they're playing not what they normally do? Or is the point that you're using people who aren't so well known? Your film needs to fight to gain attention.

Make a film on your own
Before you start assembling a big cast and crew, make a small film first, perhaps on a mobile. That way, you understand the process from start to finish, can see where your weaknesses are and can make a lot of mistakes – without a whole huge crew watching. It doesn't have to be any good; you don't have to show it to anyone. But edit it, put music on it, make sure you complete it.

Make it count
The standard of shorts is high, so make sure your money shows on screen. Every shot and line of dialogue has to count. Good locations, good production design and music all help sell your film. (A heck of a lot of short films include sunsets, which look amazing and are cheap.)

What do you offer the star?
I'm presuming you don't have much of a budget. So the only thing you can offer an established, “name” actor is a good script, with a good role for them – and something they don't normally play. And you've no comeback if they turn you down. Nobody owes you this.

Also, every actor should play a character with a name. They've given their time and skill for free, so the least you can offer them is a credit as “Keith”, not “Guard number 5”. It looks better on their CVs.

What do you offer the crew?
You're (probably) not paying people, so you have to treat them well. Don't tell them it's a great opportunity for their careers (klaxons go off, there are axes and bazookas). Define the working hours – and stick to them. Make sure there's a good lunch provided for everyone, tea and snacks and supplies.

You're the one who'll benefit from the film, not them. So you need these people more than they need you. And a good, experienced crew is essential. Ideally, you'll be the least experienced person on set.

Your cast and crew will – and should – drop you in an instant if they get another good, paid gig. You also find you can't work the schedule to get your dream cast and crew together in the same same place at the same time. So you have to work out who is the most important.

Say what you don't know
I made a stupid blunder on Origin by not letting on that I didn't know how to work the walkie-talkies. Don't bluff your way through. Ask advice. Listen and learn. There's a lot of bullshit in films – you have to big a project up just to get it made and seen. But people, especially the crew, will be much happier when you're honest.

Do as much groundwork as you can yourself. Your producer and crew may only be there for the shoot itself. Make people's lives easy, and have as much prepared in advance as possible.

You set the tone of the shoot. So be cool, decisive and fun. As director, everyone will want your opinion all the time, so know what you want from every aspect of the film – and don't dither when they ask you. A happy crew works 10 times harder.

As much as you might plan, all shoots run on luck, short films even more so because there is no money. So you'll have to adapt and improvise. Roll with it.

Say thank you. Buy drinks. Have a cast and crew screening. Keep everyone informed of what's happening. Return the favours people have done you. Let them know to call the favours in.

When you finish filming, you're halfway through the process. Keep your film short and relevant. Cut every frame you can. Cleaning Up lost a whole scenes and at least one of my favourite lines. Be ruthless. Audiences sitting through lots of shorts in one go will thank you.

More people will see the trailer than the film. The cut of the trailer is potentially more important than the cut of the film.

Don’t just watch lots of short films – look at how they’ve marketed themselves, too. Some do fancy websites and loads of PR, others don’t. We based our efforts on the Academy Award-winning short The New Tenants.

Don't waste people's time. You want a simple, good-looking website where people can quickly – no, immediately – find your trailer, a list of cast and crew, the tag lines and blurbs, a press release and how to contact you. Make it easy for people to see where it's playing and what awards you've won.

We'll write about sending your finished short out into the world later, when we've a better idea of how what we've done has worked.