Monthly Archives: April 2020

How to write really good Doctor Who stories

People often ask me “Where do you get your ideas…?”.

Actually, they don’t. Generally speaking they’ll say “You have too much free time”, or some variation thereof. It usually follows a video; some investment of idiocy where the spit and polish has taken hours. I will point out, as diplomatically as possible, that this is just about the most hurtful thing you can say to someone who’s taken the trouble to create something: that it implies that the time they spent on something constructive is in some way less valuable than time they might have spent scrolling through news feeds, or playing sports, or watching Love Island. We don’t do this stuff in addition to poker nights or binging Netflix box sets; we do it as a replacement. Most of us have no more or less free time than you do – it’s just we use ours differently. In many ways this quest for clarity is a fool’s errand, but it is a message that I will continue to spread because otherwise they will say it to someone who is even more bothered by it than I am.

But I often encounter people who post ideas for ideas and want help. “I’ve got this idea for a story,” they’ll begin. “The Master has kidnapped all the Doctor’s companions and he has to rescue them all.” To which I’ll say well, that’s not a story, that’s a beginning. Or possibly a midpoint. Either way it’s a scene, not a story – an action, not a motivation. Why’s he kidnapped them? What’s his game plan? In what respect might the Doctor be hindered or aided? When and where are you setting this, and why there / then? How do you expect any thoughts when I have, at this stage, nothing to actually think about? Worse still are the ones who submit two paragraphs and then want your appraisal, copy-and-pasted into the Facebook comments. They act all earnest and unworthy, but it is thinly-veiled compliment fishing, the need for an ego boost.

Perhaps that’s unfair. But listen: if you want to write, you write. There is no other way of doing it. You write and you write badly and then you get better. And you write your story, not the one that other people have concocted for you. It’s not a democracy (said Philip Pullman); if you don’t know where the plot is going, how should anyone else? It’s different if you’re stuck, if there are narrative cul-de-sacs or technical problems or holes that you’ve dug around your characters that are seemingly too deep to climb. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you’re backed into a corner, so long as you’re prepared to ignore every piece of advice you’re given and listen, instead, for that still, small voice in your head – no, not the one that says you’re crap, the other one, the one who’s got a solution and an exit strategy. But please. Don’t come to me with two hundred words and then ask me for an opinion. Give me something I can actually work with.

“Here’s one I wrote yesterday; it’s called ‘The Oncoming Storm’…”

At the same time there are things I’ve said to people that I’ve committed to memory and resolved to write down somewhere permanent, or at least semi-permanent, in case they ever come up again. And seeing as there seems to be a plethora of new written material saturating the web at the moment – not to mention a ton of would-be writers following along thinking “Ooh, I could have a go at that” I thought I’d share a few thoughts here on how I go about crafting a Doctor Who story. Notice I said stories, not fiction. Writing a book is a different matter – I’ve done that, and it requires grit and commitment and, more to the point, it’s a whole other article, one I may one day write. Let’s not run before we can walk.

Here’s a disclaimer: I’ve got hundreds of Metro articles under my belt (most of which were dreadful), but that’s largely it as far as the professional side goes. Any fiction is strictly on an amateur basis – I lack an agent, a book deal and indeed any interest from a publishing house. This makes me completely unqualified to tell you what I’m about to tell you, at least it does if all you’re interested in is a list of accreditations that will give my advice some clout (not that you should be looking for clout – there are hundreds of online guides that start with “The author has written in X and Y and has produced stories that were shortlisted for…”; these are often leaky vessels and they must be approached with caution, as many of them will prove far from seaworthy). On the other hand I have learned a thing or two over the years about how to string a sentence together, even if that last one was excessively long. It’s one of the few things I can actually do reasonably well. So please take what follows with the necessary pinch of salt – it is the opinion of one person – but if you find yourself nodding in agreement at least once or twice, then I suppose my work is done.

Allons-y!

1. Don’t expect to get published. There are thousands of you and the market is fierce. Always seek to improve but remember, as you grow, that raw talent is only part of this; an enormous amount of success is down to social media presence, timing and the ability to self-market, not to mention sheer dumb luck. There will be many published stories you read that are, you are convinced, vastly inferior to your own. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, so deal with it. Chances are you’re not going to make any money, but that needn’t be a bad thing, so long as you have both eyes open. Anyway, you’re in this to tell stories, remember?

2. You’re not better than Chibnall. Well all right, maybe you are. I mean I don’t know you. But effective scriptwriting is an entirely different kettle of fish to the ability to string a few words together in prose. And even if you’re writing scripts, storytelling is only part of the equation – there are budgets, series arcs and intended audience to consider as well. Don’t go thinking you know more than the people who get paid to write this, because chances are you don’t: I frequently encounter unpublished authors on the internet who are convinced that an online degree and a couple of anthology inclusions makes them the next Michael Ondaatje, and I tend to give them a wide berth. “You must have,” quoth Roald Dahl, “a degree of humility.”

3. Pick your Doctor carefully. There is a novel I read a while back called Ten Little Aliens. It’s standard fare: a group of marines go on what appears to be a routine training mission only to discover a terrible secret. There are angry young men (and women) and budget-swallowing explosions and a lot of people get killed. There is even, in the book’s latter third, an ambitious and not entirely successful Choose-Your-Own-Adventure section. It’s grandiose and over-ambitious and it has a suitably tense finale, so a number of boxes are ticked.

The problem is this: the story is vaguely contemporary and American in feel; it has the ambience of something like Starship Troopers or Aliens, both of whom it closely emulates. And it just doesn’t fit with the First Doctor. This is a world of dank ventilation shafts and vast echoey temples and dismemberment and sweat and testosterone; it’s difficult to imagine Hartnell huffing and puffing along those dimly lit corridors with his cane. Stephen Cole (the book’s author) does his best to give Ben and Polly something to do, but even Ben is completely out of his depth in this world of pulse rifles and high-tech cameras. It felt as if Hartnell had somehow wandered into another Doctor’s story, and the net result is a book that is decently written, but jarring and ultimately unsatisfying. Either Cole was desperate to tell this story and use his favourite character no matter what, or he was answering a commission and got saddled with the wrong incarnation. Either way, it doesn’t work.

In many ways, the adoption of existing characters makes your job much easier – it provides a template – but that’s the sort of thing you’ll need to bear in mind as you approach any work of DW fiction, even a short story. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ wouldn’t have worked with Capaldi, Bill and Nardole; it is impossible to imagine Troughton in ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. Some of it is contextual (‘Dalek’, for example, was written within the frame of the Time War), but it’s not just about the setting, it’s about how you’d expect the characters to behave. And if this isn’t an issue for you – if, for example, you’re turning out a very by-the-numbers base-under-siege story that would work for any combination of TARDIS personnel – then are you really telling the best story you can?

4. Keep it PG-13. This is just a personal preference, but I have yet to encounter a DW story or novel featuring sex or bad language that didn’t feel like showing off. You could arguably level that same criticism at series one of Torchwood – at least until it grew its own personality and became something far more enjoyable – but Doctor Who is a family show and while there’s nothing wrong with a provocative outfit, a bit of mild cursing or the odd spark of innuendo, anything stronger is in danger of unbalancing your narrative. The rationale behind this is that if we have to start thinking about characters having sex, we have to start thinking about the Doctor having sex, and that’s a place most people don’t want to go, so don’t. By all means pepper your story with mindless violence, graphic descriptions of dismemberment or disfigurement and plenty of blood; just keep the language mild and the clothes on. It’s a double standard – one that the likes of South Park have lampooned on more than one occasion – but it seems to be the only way to write stories that actually work.

(Please be aware, by the way, that I am not applying any of this to the murky underbelly that is Rule 34 Fan Fiction, a sub-strand that I accept has always existed, needs to exist and will always exist, at least in some form or another. It was simpler when these things were text only and we didn’t have to have accompanying artwork; nonetheless it’s a part of the fandom and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. I don’t pretend to enjoy any of it, but I know some people devour the stuff like a Spaceball goes for canned oxygen. You do you.)

(As a brief sidetrack, do you want to know why I hold the Rule 34 material in such contempt? Really? Well, it comes from my first exposure to it – way back in the distant past that was 1996, when someone emailed an erotic story they’d found on a Usenet group. It was Sesame Street. It featured Elmo and Maria. Seriously, that’s enough to put anyone off.)

5. Read, re-read and then read once again every single last line of dialogue. I cannot stress enough just how important this is. It’s make-or-break. If you’re not voicing your Doctor or companion appropriately, people will notice. You know what stands out in Shadows of the Empire for me? That one scene I can’t get out of my head? It’s not the space battles or Luke honing his force powers or the final, climactic confrontation with Prince Xizor. It’s the bit where Darth Vader says “I’ll have my servants check it out”. That’s not something Darth Vader would say, ever. Anakin Skywalker, perhaps. But not Vader. His characterisation is in any case completely off in Shadows, but this is the nadir: in a poorly-written novel, it sticks out like a sore thumb on an already calloused hand.

Even a single word can make a difference. Let’s say, for example, that you have a scene where the Doctor says “Wonderful!”. I can hear that from Doctors One through Eight. I’m having a hard time hearing it from Eccleston (unless it’s delivered with dripping sarcasm), or indeed from anyone in the new series, with the possible exception of Smith. If you’re using existing Doctors and companions and you’re not sure whether your dialogue sounds authentic, go back and watch some episodes with the characters you’re writing, or ask for a second opinion. You can always ignore it.

6. Don’t be afraid of the word ‘said’. You know that ‘Let’s Do It’ parody? The one with Tate and Tennant with Barrowman at the piano? There’s a curious conceit between verses: Barrowman goes through an English teacher’s handout (replied, squawked, yelled, proclaimed, ejaculated) to introduce each new section, poking gentle fun at the gossipy natter-outside-the-shops feel of Victoria Wood’s original. It’s greatly amusing, but it’s not something you should copy. No one of any merit is going to chew you out for sticking a couple of ‘said’s into your work. This isn’t primary school. Equally, do not overuse it; it does get boring if that’s the only way your characters actually express anything.

Actually, a better way of handling dialogue is to keep usage both of ‘said’ and its myriad adjectives to an absolute minimum. This does not mean that you should write pages of back-and-forth quotes between characters you do not name. It is fine if you’re Manuel Puig, but it can be hard to follow. Instead, what you do is this: you intersperse dialogue with descriptive text to make it obvious who is speaking. Examine this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party,” he said. “All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat.

“Let me help,” she said.

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself,” she said.

“You’re right. And I apologise,” he replied, standing and adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

 

Which is so much better when you write it like this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party. All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat. “Let me help.”

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself.”

“You’re right. And I apologise.” Yates stood, adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

7. Don’t repeat gags. Catchphrases are fine, provided your story does not hinge, revolve or end upon them (there are exceptions to this rule, but you have to really know what you’re doing). But don’t ever drop in the same jokes you’ve seen on TV, unless there’s a damned good reason for it. Yes, it was funny when Tennant quipped “Are you my mummy?” when wearing that gas mask. We don’t need to hear it again, so write something new. Matt Smith’s horse dialogue? Well, that wasn’t funny the first time, so God knows we don’t need a repeat performance. This goes for variations – don’t go thinking you can a fresh laugh by tweaking the odd word. If the Doctor speaks muskrat, keep it to yourself. And please, for the love of sanity, do not use ‘Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey’. Ever. I mean it.

8. Screw the continuity. This is a showcase for you, and your abilities as a storyteller. You do not need to wade through the minefield of existing material in order to ensure that your own series of events matches up to What People Already Know. If you’re doing something that’s already happened, or wading into territory that’s already charted, it really doesn’t matter that much. I’m not saying people should behave out of character. Having Jamie rejoin the TARDIS as a prominent astrophysicist, or engineering a story where Mel suddenly starts drinking heavily before hefting a plasma rifle and joining a group of marines? It might be a laugh, but you’ll have to work incredibly hard to make it even remotely plausible.

But Doctor Who has spent years ignoring its own history – and the explanations provided are scant, when they are provided at all. There are at least two or three origin stories for the Daleks. The same applies for the Cybermen, and even then no one can work out whether the new ones are from Mondas or the Lumic factory. TV contradicts Big Finish contradicts the books, the events of ‘Turn Left’ fly in the face of the episodes it references, and there is an endless debate as to whether the UNIT stories happened in the 70s or 80s. Oh, we can pretend it all makes sense, but it doesn’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either pulling your leg or understands the show far less than they think they do.

During the writing process for The Child Left Behind, I became aware of a comic that clashed with the events I was talking about in the novel. In other words, there’s a story involving the Pied Piper. It’s not a particularly well-known story; I doubt many current fans have heard of it and even fewer, I suspect, have read it. But its existence jarred with me, and I thus set about establishing a side narrative that worked in the events of that particular adventure to the story that I was writing, so as not to mess up the timeline. I think I managed, just about, but whenever I look at that book now I can’t help wondering whether it really fits. It’s a whole extra subplot that squats uneasily on the fringes, like the socially awkward friend you invited to the party, standing in a corner making each glass of wine last an hour and talking to no one.

So honestly? It’s best not to worry about it. Know your subject and know your characters and try not to retread old ground, but if you do, don’t sweat the small stuff. Continuity should never get in the way of a good story, so don’t allow yourself to get bogged down by details. Leave that sort of thing to Ian Levine.

9. Resist the temptation to show how much you know. Yes, fine, you’re familiar with the history of the Tractators, the names of every Sontaran battlefleet, the specifics of the Cyber conversion process and the ins and outs of Gallifreyan sectarianism. Does it fit the story? Really? Because infodumps are fine if you’re trying to win an argument on a Reddit thread, but they’ll slow up the action and you run the risk of annoying the established fans and alienating the new or inexperienced ones. The next time you blind your audience with technobabble or historical discourse, ask yourself a single question: does it serve a narrative purpose, or are you just marking your territory?

10. If you must write in the First Person, do not make yourself the Doctor. Look, perspective can be a tricky thing. One rookie mistake made by writers is to swap between characters with wilful abandon: writing in the Third Person is going to be your undoing if you keep switching points of view. For the most part you’ll want to pick one person per scene, and stick to it. Aside from a few stray intermezzos, the Harry Potter books tell the entire story from the perspective of its title character and, with the exception of those dreadful flashback chapters (you know, the ones that read like bad Tolkien) they don’t suffer as a result.

You don’t need to do this. But at least within each individual scene you need to leave the “He thought / she thought” seesawing out of it – and what better way of doing this than writing the whole thing in First Person? Well, knock yourself out. J.D. Salinger built a career out of it. But don’t be the Doctor. Be a companion, a supporting character, a villain if you like – but the Doctor is off limits. It doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Eye of Heaven; it doesn’t really work in Scratchman. The Doctor is only ever defined by the people who are along for the ride; even in ‘Heaven Sent’ Capaldi at least had someone to talk to when he was jumping out of windows and punching a wall. You cannot inhabit that head, however well you think you know your Doctor. The whole point behind the show is that we never really do.

As an addendum, it is perfectly fine to write a third person scene (or even an entire story) from the Doctor’s point of view; narrative omniscience affords that luxury. Just remember to write ‘He thought’. Or ‘She thought’, if that’s where you are.

11. Enjoy it, or at least enjoy having done it. I’m channeling my inner Dorothy Parker with this one, but it’s an important point. We were going to open with the old Tegan maxim (“If you stop enjoying it, give it up”) but I don’t think that’s necessarily the mindset you want to be carrying. The unfortunate truth is that writing – any sort of writing – is hard work, and a lot of going back and forth over those fiddly sentences that won’t quite parse the way you want them to, and getting interrupted just as you’re in flow, and periods of blockage and despair and then that Eureka! moment when you’re in the shower or the car and nowhere near a pen, and then getting back to your laptop and feverishly tapping away, all the while having to listen to that small voice in your head – yes, that one, the one that’s constantly whispering “This is prosaic shit, really, isn’t it?”

No, here’s how it works: this will not always be easy. It will not always be fun. But you will achieve a sense of satisfaction when you have achieved something you know is good – perhaps not objectively good, because that’s a pipe dream, but at least something that’s fun and accessible and that tells a complete story.  And if you get nowhere, and your audience is sparse, and you wonder why you’re bothering, there are worse role models than Paul Sheldon at the end of Misery – specifically the end of William Goldman’s screen adaptation, where James Caan is having lunch in a New York restaurant with his agent. “I’m glad the critics like it,” he says benignly, as she gushes over the reception to his new book. “And I hope the people like it too. But I wrote it for me.”

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Have I Got Whos For You (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs edition)

OK, we’ll make this a quick one; I’m supposed to be doing home educating this morning. Here’s this week’s news roundup.

On lockdown at her home in Los Angeles, Karen Gillan finds an unorthodox way of celebrating Earth Day.

“Brannigan? I’m off to the supermarket. You want anything?”

“OK, this is where it gets complicated.”

“Yes, I know we’ve got a Cobra briefing, but Dipsy’s about to get on the scooter and the Noo Noo’s still hoovering up the custard.”

“Yeah, how do we clap again?”

“Bollocks. I knew there was something I’d forgotten to do this evening.”

 

See you in a few days, when we’ll have something very special. Well, a bit. Hopefully.

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The Smallerpictures Video Dump (2020, part one)

Population 51,201. Possibly not for much longer.

One good thing about a lockdown: I’ve had a chance to amalagamate all the leftover copy I’d not got round to filing these last few months. Which means we’re in for a busy few weeks here at BoM, as we go through series retrospectives, how-to guides, and even a bit of myth debunking along with all the meme roundups and general idiocy. But we’ve also got a few videos to get through, so let’s rewind to the beginning of the year, when we were all still allowed out.

 

1. The Name of the Master (January 2020)

Don’t get me wrong. ‘Spyfall Part 2’ was quite fun, but this whole thing really was a bit dom / sub, wasn’t it? Never mind that the relationship between the Master and the Doctor is already tapping a wealth of unresolved sexual tension, long before either of them swapped genders: a scene like the Master’s ‘Kneel before Zodd’ moment took it to the next level, and it really is like handing a silver platter to the fan fiction writers along with a note reading “Go on then, you win”.

It was Pip Madeley who turned this into a Fifty Shades of Gallifrey type thing – he may even have called it that; the Tweet is proving elusive so we may never know. My own version is a good deal less suggestive and not terribly funny, relying as it does on the conceit of the Doctor forgetting (either deliberately or through sheer scattiness; you pick) exactly whom she’s supposed to be addressing. The tricky part was dropping in names that weren’t saturated in background noise (something I’m not particularly adept at removing), which meant several otherwise viable candidates had to be removed. Still, there were enough left, and the end result hangs together. Just.

 

2. Twice Upon A Time: The Deleted Scene (January 2020)

This seemed like an obvious joke, so I ran with it. It was a crazy week: everyone was busy arguing whether Jo Martin’s Doctor was pre-Hartnell or pre-Pertwee (the consensus: it had to be the latter, because she had a police box and otherwise EVERYTHING HARTNELL DID IS RUINED). Then ‘The Timeless Children’ came out and all hell broke loose, given that it essentially validated just about every tinpot headcanon theory in existence. In the meantime, I’d been making this: having promised the others he’ll be quite some time David Bradley takes a walk into the snow, and then pops back to his TARDIS, only it’s not his TARDIS. Nor is it Capaldi’s. You see where we’re going, don’t you?

 

3. The Angels Take Manhatten, Rescored (March 2020)

Wrestling. That was it. There was content to show and plot lines to advance (and, one suspects, a series of expensive contracts to fulfil) and so the WWE, in their infinite wisdom, elected to broadcast Wrestlemania 36 within the confines of a studio instead of an arena. There were no queues, no gigantic foam fingers or homemade banners, no jubilant teenagers fired up on coffee and Red Bull giving their predictions. Just a lot of thirty-year-old men, pumped with steroids and rehearsing their lines in a mirror. Yes, I know you could hear the trash talk. I don’t want to hear the trash talk; I just want them to work the crowd. If there’s no crowd, it’s all rather flat.

The fans seemed to know this as well, which is why a Twitter user who goes by the name of SideEye elected to overdub a heartfelt confrontation between Brad Wyatt and John Cena with, of all things, the Laura Palmer theme from Twin Peaks. It was mad, but it worked (and it was, as you’ll see in the article I’ve referenced, not the first time someone had paired professional wrestling with Angelo Badalamenti). There is something about that music that is both emotionally overwrought and just a little bit artificial, which is the entire point of Twin Peaks and one reason why it’s so brilliantly unsettling. And while I concede they’re very different shows, it really ought to work with Doctor Who as well, surely?

It does. If you can time it so that final, climactic change from minor to major happens at the precise moment Amy vanishes, everything else just sort of slots into place. Who knew?

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Have I Got Whos For You (Easter Bank Holiday Edition)

“Huh.”

River wasn’t expecting this.

“I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid I will have to ask you to move on.”

“Order 66.”

“…son?”

And in a back garden somewhere in Oxfordshire…

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Thursday

“I suppose at some point,” says Graham, “you’re gonna tell us how you did it.”

Around them, the TARDIS hums. It is the ambient hum it makes when the machinery is at rest and waiting for someone to do something. He has learned to pick apart these hums, to differentiate them by mood and to know when a change in pitch or a sudden pulsing means a thing is about to happen. It occurs to Graham, right now, in the casual laziness of an uneventful spring morning, that he has assimilated this knowledge without even realising it; that the process of time and space travel has altered him in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It is the sort of realisation that only springs to mind during the quiet moments, such as this one, a matter of days after that unexpected phone call and then the Vworp, vworp of a materialising police box, and the resumption of his old life, or, depending on how you looked at it, his new one.

From the black wooden box she is in the process of rewiring, the Doctor looks up. “The prison break?” she says. “Not much to tell. Truth be told I can barely remember.”

Graham scratches his head. “Seriously?”

“Trust me, when you’ve broken out of as many prisons as I have, they all sort of blend into one. You know. Like Nordic dramas, only without the scenery. Occasionally you get a fun one, but for the most part they’re all fairly generic.” The Doctor picks up a magnifying glass: tongue extended, seemingly in concentration, she fiddles with a screw the size of a lentil. “This was one of those.”

“So you just got out and came back?”

“Yep. Nothing remotely interesting. Well, apart from the orangutan. And the laughing gas. And the army of sentient vending machines that wanted to make me their ruler.” She gives an apologetic smile. “Just another Thursday, really.”

Graham realises that this is probably all the explanation he’s likely to get, and goes back to his newspaper. He is mocked for having it. Ryan makes jokes about living in the stone age. Even Yas has pointed out that it’s already largely obsolete by the time he reads it, and that digital media is the only way to get up-to-date information. Graham is having none of this. He likes the feel of the thing as he holds it, a small and transient concoction, the world reduced to black and white with splashings of colour, meticulously produced (despite the mistakes), the cheap roughness of the paper, the ink bleeding onto his ageing fingers. He likes having something tangible, this global outlook distilled and framed in a few sheets of grey-white A3. He’s got the whole world in his hands…

Graham gives a start. He hasn’t thought of that in years, and instantly memories of school assemblies soar unceremoniously to the surface, like a diver about to catch the bends. Log tables and playground skirmishes and sneaky fags behind the bike sheds. A caretaker’s bearded threats and scraping nails on a blackboard. Rosie Billington and the way she giggled. The smell of chalk.

“You’re quiet,” says the Doctor, looking up.

“I was just thinking.”

“We don’t have to do this,” she says. “You know, if you’d rather not. I mean there’s no hurry.”

He thinks: there is, really. The ship is a precision engine, built for the most extraordinary of manoeuvres, leaping galaxies and centuries like a child vaulting a gym horse, but its captain has less control over her vessel than she’s prepared to admit, even to herself. You simply never know where you’re going to land – it is the opposite of a bus, and it has been this aspect, now that he comes to hold it in mind, which has probably been the most difficult to grasp in all the time they have been travelling. He tells the Doctor none of this, because she usually nods in an unsuccessful attempt at empathy, the eyes shy and withdrawn, the jaw uncomfortably clenched.

But downtime is rare and you never know when the klaxon will wail signalling another emergency – to which the Doctor responds like Pavlov’s dog chasing its next meal – and right now he is as resolved as he likely to be, and so after a moment he says “No. Let’s get it done.”

“But Ryan – ”

“Yeah, well, we couldn’t agree. Different locations, y’see. He wanted the woods at Ecclesall, because she used to love walking there. I wanted Scarborough, because that’s where I proposed.”

“So what are we doing here?”

“It’s a compromise. I found a bit of map that was more or less between the two and stuck a pin in it.”

“Old school!” The Doctor nods, quietly impressed. “I love a bit of old school.”

“But Ryan, see, he didn’t really want to be involved. He just said ‘Do what you like’. So I thought I’d take him at his word for once.”

Her face darkens a little. “I don’t want to drive a wedge between you two.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. He had a bit of a sulk, but he got over it. Said it wasn’t really her anyway, and that he’d mark it in his own way.”

“Is that why he’s gone off with Yas?”

“They’re out somewhere. They said to pick ’em up when we’re done.”

“Couldn’t you…?” the Doctor eyes the urn, balanced delicately on the console. “I mean, couldn’t you take half each?”

Graham shakes his head. “You know, you’re the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” he says. “But you really haven’t got a clue how these things work, have you?”

The Doctor shoots a doleful smile. “Apparently not.”

* * * * *

There are no police boxes left in Ilkley. There is a pub, which used to do a decent roast; it sits opposite the church, suited locals spilling into the lounge on a Sunday: hymns and jukeboxes and collection plates and fruit machines. The sacred and the profane. Draperies and perfumeries jostle for space with the art galleries and gift shops; now and then a break will appear as the cobbles disappear into a dead end, someone’s trade entrance. The houses sit on well-kept streets, unimposing and unassuming piles of Yorkshire stone.

As they walk, Graham is doing mental gymnastics. He can’t quite fathom out why it is that Grace’s ashes shouldn’t be split into equal piles. There’s nothing illegal about the idea. He knows people who’ve done it, and he does not judge them. Grace exists as an idea, as a memory, but her corporeal self has been reduced to a collection of ceremonial atoms, carried like playground sand. Still. The idea doesn’t sit well with him, although he can’t express it in words. It is not a religious thing, merely a matter of principle. It exasperates him, in a way, that he cannot adequately explain this to the Doctor and that even if he could, she would be unable to understand.

Instead he says “Quiet. And why’s the pub closed?”

The Doctor is peering into the contents of a public bin: lager bottles, chip wrappings and yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news. Her brow furrows like an allotment trench. She looks left and right, frowning.

Graham sees her anxiety, although he does not see the bin. “What is it?”

“Should have checked the scanner. The TARDIS really doesn’t do short hops.”

“Yeah, but we’re still here, aren’t we? This is definitely the right place.”

She nods, although her eye is still on the newspaper. “We’ve jumped forward a little further than I’d have liked.”

“I get the feeling there’s a second half to that thought and you don’t wanna tell me.”

“Got it in one.” The Doctor takes him by the arm. “Come on. We’ve a hill to climb.”

* * * * *

Head southeast out of Ilkley and the landscape shifts. The trees are older; colossal firs and elms bordered by white slatted fences; schools and bungalows and the squat signs of estate agents. Then the houses become fewer, further apart and bigger, and the trees line the roads. The moor bursts forth to the right, while hills and valleys spill out to your left, unannounced.

“I could have sworn there was a song about this place,” says the Doctor as they walk. “Remember something, anyway.”

“It’s called On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at.”

“Bar tap?”

“Bar tat. Means going out without your hat on.”

“I don’t wear a hat. Not these days anyway.” The Doctor clasps at her hair, as if to check this is still the case. “Used to have loads. Funny how things change when you get older.” She stops to catch her breath, hand on hip, taking in the increasingly impressive views. “Or younger.”

“Well, anyway,” says Graham, his hand still clutched tight to the shopping bag housing Grace’s urn, “This bloke didn’t have his hat, and then he dies. And his body gets eaten by worms, which get eaten by ducks, which then get eaten by the bloke singing the song. So it’s basically a song about cannibalism.”

The Doctor concentrates, apparently processing. “What happens if you’re a vegetarian?”

* * * * *

The Cow and Calf sounds like it ought to be a pub. It is actually a rock formation, a lengthy outcrop of millstone, sitting atop Hangingstone Road and overlooking the moor. For some pilgrims it is their destination; for others a starting point. One formation stretches across the apex of the hill in a long misshapen spillage of stone and grass, a pasty that has crumbled in the oven. Nearby, squat by comparison – although still impressive – is the calf, perched almost precariously, like a cartoon boulder, waiting to tip agonisingly forwards onto an unsuspecting coyote.

The Cow and Calf is also a pub, although this is further up the road, and it is shut.

Now there are sprinklings of rock amongst the grass, flat stone walls and clumps of weed. Doves keeping a chattering vigil over unhatched eggs, hidden from the absent hikers. Clefts and crevices and piles of shingle.

“Oh, look,” says the Doctor, trying not to look pained. “A quarry.”

“It’s supposed to look like a calf sitting with her mother,” says Graham. “We did it at primary school. According to local legend there was a giant who had a barney with his wife and then split the rock in half as he was running away from her.”

“A Geryon, actually, from the Mylanx cluster. And it was more than an argument. She was trying to kill him!”

“And you know this how?”

A sheepish look. “I was their marriage counsellor.”

He feels a hunch building. “Grace once told me there was a UFO sighting here. 1980s. Anything to do with you?”

“No comment.”

* * * * *

The two of them climb to the summit and the world is spread like a ruffled blanket: in front, Ilkley nestles in the valley like a crab in a rockpool; to their left, West View Park and, somewhere beyond, the canals of Silsden; facing due east, the lights of Otley and the rim of the hills at its borders. The National Park draws the tourists like flies to an abandoned picnic, but even the clicks of a thousand smartphones have their benefits, and the land is still unspoilt and undeveloped. Graham never tires of vistas like these, even when he has seen a dozen offworld mountains and baked in the heat of vast purple alien suns. Essex was his childhood, but Yorkshire has become his home, something no amount of glacial palaces or endless tropical beaches will ever be able to quench.

Later, he will wonder why it was so quiet.

The Doctor is standing on the Calf, hands on hips. “Will this do?”

“Yeah, it’s as good a place as any.” Graham looks behind him; the top of the Cow is tempting but he can feel the creak in his joints and doubts he can climb any higher. The wind whips in from the north-east, reddening faces and billowing the tales of coats, bringing with it the tales of old fishermen from Staithes, the clacking claws in the dripping lobster pots, and the scent of freshly-plundered haddock.

He reaches into the bag, pulling out the urn. He will have to face the right way, or risk a re-enactment of The Big Lebowski. It is a favourite film, but there are some truths better confined to fiction.

“So what now?” asks the Doctor. She is seated a couple of yards away, boots dangling over the edge. “Are you supposed to say something?”

“Yeah.” Graham regards the blackness of the urn, glinting in the sunlight of early April. It is the colour of grease, intricately crafted, he suspects, for ergonomic consideration as well as aesthetics. It feels comfortable, weighted but not excessively heavy, solid but movable. He begins, carefully, to twist the lid, screwing counter-clockwise, feeling the scrape of ceramics. Besides the wind, it is the only sound he can hear.

The lid removed. Graham hands it to the Doctor, who has joined him: she turns it over in her hand, admiring the workmanship but also testing, he suspects, for flaws or archaeological interest. Ever the scientist. He is almost amused. She becomes suddenly aware of him staring at her, and stops, almost-but-not-quite-embarrassed, pocketing the lid in her raincoat. “Sorry. Miles away. Go on.”

Graham looks at the open urn, and then at the hills. He remembers coming up here as a younger man, that breathless climb with old friends. Kendal mint cake and hot coffee. He remembers other climbs with the Doctor: the hot sands of Desolation filling his boots; the hills of eastern Pakistan; the cliffs down at Penzance. Was there a conscious moment when he decided that the journey was more fun than the destination; when travel became the point? Was it after he’d left? Or before?

His mind, he realises, is not on the job, and desperately, he tries to think about his wife.

“Grace – ” he begins.

The Doctor stands, patient. Graham tries to read her and cannot.

“Did you ever lose someone?” he says after a moment. “I mean I know you said you did, back when we first met. But I never pressed you for the details, ‘cos I never felt like I should.”

She waits, allowing the silence so that he may fill it.

“No, what I mean is – ” Graham fumbles his words like a toddler with a football. “Did you ever lose someone the way I did? You know. Prematurely?”

“More than I can count,” she replies, and Graham nods; it is the answer he expected. “Well. Not really. I never stop counting.”

“How many?”

She gives him a look, which Graham interprets – correctly, as it turns out – as I’m not answering that one.

“Some young, some old,” the Doctor continues with a sigh, by way of deflection. “Some you’d call worthy sacrifices, if there is such a thing. People giving themselves to save the universe, or just to save my life. Others…” She breaks off in mid flow, looks out at the landscape. “Others were just needless.”

“And Grace? Where would you file that?”

The Doctor doesn’t answer.

“It’s no fun,” says Graham finally. “Being the one who carries on. Because every planet we land on, every new sky we get to see, all I can think of is how she might react. Which ones she’d like or which ones she’d hate. What she’d think of the locals; whether I’d act differently or do something differently, because of something she said. She loved it when it rained; I ever tell you that? So that time we were on the planet of the rain gods – what was it called?”

“The Planet of the Rain Gods,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “They don’t have much imagination.”

“Yeah, there – well, she’d have loved that. And then I get to thinking that maybe she wouldn’t, because of all the other stuff that was going on. And I realise that maybe I didn’t know her as well as I thought. And it…”

He breaks off.

“It frustrates me that we had so little time together,” Graham says when he has gathered his thoughts. “Because then I could have got to learn all this stuff.”

“I know.” The Doctor is nodding. “Really, I do. But sometimes second-guessing is all you have. That’s the way the universe works. It’s not charted or pre-ordained. It’s this great big ball of cosmic fluff; there’s no plan. There are some things you can change, some you can’t. But when it comes to life and death…no one gets to decide that. Not even I can. All we have to decide,” she concludes, “is what to do with the time that is given us.”

That final sentence rings like a bell in Graham’s pop culture repository. “Tolkien?”

“Me, actually,” she says, slightly abashed. “He was blocked. That was a fun afternoon. We made scones.”

Something else has just occurred to Graham, something he feels he ought to address. “Thing is, though, you’re a time traveller. I know that people die, and you can’t necessarily change that, but can’t you…you know, can’t you cheat? Pop back and have extra days when they were still around?”

“I could. But I don’t. I mean if nothing else it’s dishonest; it’s like cheating on the lottery.” The Doctor looks momentarily distracted; Graham files this part of the exchange for future reference. “It’s also incredibly dangerous, because then you’re crossing timelines and that’s where the web of time is at its thinnest.”

She pauses as if for dramatic effect. “You have to be really careful then. You never know what you’ll unleash.”

“So you never did it?”

“Once or twice. And even then I kept my distance. Or tried to. Not always successfu- anyway, doesn’t matter. Death is closure, Graham. However it comes, it’s a door you don’t want to open again.” The Doctor’s face is a mask. “I learned that the hard way.”

Graham nods, and the Doctor turns to him, sharply. “Please don’t ask me to do it. Ever.”

“I won’t,” says Graham.

“Good.” The two of them stand there, Graham helpless. What left now for his eulogy? What could he say that he hadn’t said at the funeral, the chapel bustling with friends and relatives, his grandson brooding and sombre? Had he hoped for some new insight, some growth of character, some unearthed perspective that came from travelling? Certainly he feels different, more whole somehow. So why can’t he find the words?

“That’s typical of you, love,” he can hear Grace chuckling. “Always worrying too much.”

Graham turns his head; she is not standing on the Calf, any more than she haunts a Norwegian cabin or the house they shared on Shrewsbury Road. There is a soundtrack of quotes that plays constantly in his head; it’s simply a question of turning off the mute button.

“I feel like Ryan should be here for this,” he says eventually.

“I was wondering when you’d get there,” says the Doctor, with a smile.

* * * * *

They go down. The early afternoon sun warms the pavements, and their footsteps echo with clatters on the cobbled stone. The larks are making song in the beeches and oaks, while cats prowl along crumbling walls like skulking prison guards. The urn jostles back and forth in Graham’s bag, the ashes of his late wife still tossing back and forth inside it. It has been agreed that they will do this another day,

“Shame the pub’s closed,” Graham mutters as they round the corner of Church Street and into Bridge Lane, where the TARDIS is parked. “I could murder a pint.”

“Come on. We’ll pick up the others and then I’ll take you for lunch. Somewhere that does pizza. I love pizza.”

“By take you for lunch, you mean one of us is buying, right?”

“Graham!” The Doctor pretends to be affronted; he sees through her like a layer of clingfilm. “What do you take me for?”

“Someone who never pays. But listen, thanks for today. Even though we didn’t do anything, at least…” He lets the sentence trail.

“Well, I’m always up for a stroll,” says the Doctor, who is not keen to get personal, at least not just now. “And hey, if you’re still stuck for a location you can always stick another pin in the map.”

“Nah. I think I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Suit yourself.” She takes out her screwdriver and does an atmospheric reading. A warning light pings. “Dang it! Left the oven on. We’ll probably have to fumigate the kitchen, again.”

“Doc – ” He stops, and looks her in the eye. “Seriously, why’s it so quiet?”

“Another time,” she says, meaning it.

He thinks once more about Grace: the ceramic nonsense of the urn, carrying something which is both his and wife and not his wife. Decades reduced, quite literally, to a cinder. The strangeness of carrying her in a shopping bag, the way he still carries her in his heart and his head. How much of memory, he wonders, is rooted in things like this? Where does the soul live, after the body has gone? Is that why old possessions take on so much meaning? Do we use them as houses, real estate for the dead?

The Doctor lingers at the door of the TARDIS; Graham thinks she looks sad. The mouth droops a little, the eyes a locked window onto some ill-remembered misdeed, or something else entirely.

“Anything you wanna get off your chest?”

There is a small, almost indiscernible intake of breath: body languge for pull yourself together, Doctor. “Come on. Pizza. And then….yeah. Somewhere else.”

The door latches shut. Then there is the sound of keys on piano wire, and the blue box fades and vanishes, and soon it is as if it had never been there.

 

Photos by Dave Noonan and Kreuzschnabel.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Lockdown Special)

“LET’S ROCK!”

There are good things coming to BoM in the next few days, but I also have a few time-sensitive images I really ought to be sharing, so we’ll do that first. Sharing these days seems to be the new black, whether it’s books or audio material or free online tuition, all hastily assembled in a disassociative spirit of ‘community’. Isn’t it great, the internet seems to be collectively screaming, how a pandemic makes us all better people? (Hashtag strongertogether? wewillgetthroughthis? Pick one.)

I’m cynical, but that’s largely because I know full well that the sea change the left are predicting or clamouring for is probably not going to materialise. If there’s one thing that life has taught me – one thing Doctor Who has taught me – it’s that people have remarkably short memories. No foxhole housed an atheist, and when we’re all in a spot – and forced, within the confines of our homes and local neighbourhoods, to indulge in extended periods of reflection, it’s easy to think that Things Will Be Different once this is all over. It would be lovely if that were so; something has to give, and heaven knows it’s been a blessed relief not having to read about Brexit these past few weeks, even if my feed is otherwise clogged with pictures of sunbathing tourists and deserted shopping centres. But I’m reminded, I’m afraid, of the end of An Inspector Calls, and the scene where the Birling family, having believed for a minute or two, that they’ve got away with the crimes to which they’ve confessed that evening, start to talk about things getting back to normal – only for karma to intervene in a sudden and dramatic manner with the sound of a ringing phone.

The phones do not ring here. For one thing we’re all on Messenger; for another, life seldom imitates art so neatly. There will be lessons learned, but not by those who need to learn them the most. And we’ll all go back to Netflix marathons and jokes about the next election, and things will continue much as they were. And perhaps that’s not the terrible calamity I’m painting it to be. Perhaps.

In the meantime we’re all apparently supposed to saturate Facebook with beach pictures to lighten the mood. Fair enough; here’s mine.

There are rumours doing the rounds about the actual cause of the virus, which – if you believe everything you read on the internet – has less to do with bats and more to do with 5G, leading to a spate of online petitions, debunked conspiracy theories in open access journals, and the occasional act of vandalism on a telephone mast.

Meanwhile, as he recovers from the effects of COVID-19 at St. Thomas’ Hospital, Boris Johnson receives an unexpected visitor.

(Oh God. This one is going to date very badly, isn’t it?)

In the meantime – unless you’re a key worker – you’re probably doing what I’m doing, which is staying home, getting up later than you should and doing more than some people advise and less than others suggest, which probably means you’re getting the balance about right. I implore you, constant reader, to keep your chin up, and if you’re in a dark place, please tell someone about it. Even if that person is me, and even if you’re simply using the comments box. At least you’ll get a response that way. Or just tell me what you’ve been doing; what books you’ve read, what TV you’ve watched; tell me about the novel you’re planning but will probably never write; the prospects for exercise in the local community; how many people in your street clapped for the NHS. Or tell me nothing. I’m fine with that, and I will keep the memes coming in any case.

Of course, you probably could go to the beach, if you were careful about it.

Now, how was that sentence going to end…?

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 12 edition, part five)

I’m on a clock this morning, so there will be as little text as possible. But we start with a deleted scene from ‘The War Games’.

Because of her narcolepsy, the Doctor’s career as a hula hoop artiste was unfortunately rather brief.

Goblet of Fire, revisited.

Unused publicity still for ‘The Timeless Children’.

“Yas! I can’t get this hat off!”

“That one. No wait, that one. No, not that one. Look, it was definitely a tree.”

“What the hell is she doing here?”

“RUN AWAY!”

It’s fine, Rose; he’ll catch you.

Enjoy being at home, if that’s where you are. It won’t be forever.

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