Fiction

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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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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The Doctor Who Fiction Collection

I recently finished a wonderful book called The Night Circus. It features, close to its conclusion, a seemingly minor character lecturing another on the importance of stories. “Someone needs to tell those tales,” he says. “When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict.”

Sometimes you write because you have the idea. Other times, you write because there’s a project, or simply because you need to, and the idea comes when you’ve brainstormed and head-scratched and run down a hundred different scenarios, none of them particularly good. And then sometimes the scenario will evolve out of a seed of an idea, reworked into something tangible and even, dare we say it, quite good. And sometimes it won’t, and you’ll go for a walk or brush the kitchen floor and wait for some unsuspecting narrative spark to drift past that you can pluck from the air. Most of all the process of writing is not always pleasant. Sometimes it is arduous and laboured and you press on, head to the wind, hand shielding your eyes against the storm, secure in the knowledge of nothing except the fact that this is not your best work, but at least it is work, and it is easier to rewrite a mess than it is a blank page.

But writing fiction using TV characters is the MFI (sorry, Ikea; I’m showing my age) of story construction. The characters come pre-assembled: you just have to put them together. You still have the job of establishing a setting – and, unless you’re playing it really safe, a supporting cast – but much of the work is done for you, the arduous task of establishing likeable protagonists already completed long ago by your intended audience. From one perspective it is cheating. From another, it is a template to enable ease of use, allowing you more time to concentrate on the story. Pick one.

I will, as a general principle, leave the character development to the novels: when I’m writing short fiction, it tends to be about Doctor Who. This particular collection spans a little over four years. Some of it is better than others: that’s as it should be. If every tale was only as good as the one that came before then we’d have a problem (if it was worse than the one that came before, we’d have a serious problem). There are Ice Warriors and Weeping Angels; the Doctor tangles with disgruntled matriarchs and angry villagers and, more than once, himself. You will have your favourites – I have mine. You don’t get to hear what they are. But you do get to read the stories. Enjoy them.

 

Sleep No More: Behind The Scenes

(Brian of Morbius, November 2015)

We start, ironically, with something that isn’t really a story at all, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. To give a little context: in late 2015 I was burned out, bummed out and very nearly wanted out. Doctor Who had lost its sheen, and I spent most of series 9 drumming my fingers on a table top (in a rather irritating four-beat pattern) waiting for it to end. I’m over it now, but those were dark days. To cope with a lackluster and occasionally frustrating series I began to get creative in my reviews, and this one – which tackles, ironically, an episode I’ve come to rather enjoy – is perhaps the silliest of the lot, being one of those fictionalised fly-on-the-wall documentary type things that became big business the moment Ricky Gervais first stepped foot into Wernham Hogg. It would be interesting to find out whether any conversations like the ones depicted ever actually took place. I’d be willing to bet there were at least a couple.

 

Dickensian

(The Doctor Who Companion, December 2016)

Write a Christmas-themed short story for The Doctor Who Companion? In 1500 words? No problem. Mostly. In this seasonal tale the Third Doctor is visited on Christmas Eve by a couple of spirits, with an obvious TARDIS-related twist. What I like about this is the stripped back Aristotle-esque nature of the setting: getting in and telling a story in one room and getting out again is something I really don’t do very often, so it was fun to rise to that particular self-imposed challenge. Oh, and there are jokes about vol-au-vents, because you always have to have a joke about vol-au-vents.

 

Day of the Dead

(The Doctor Who Companion, October 2017)

The year after the run of Christmassy stories over at the DWC, the site’s fiction editor organised a Halloween project. The brief was simple: write a story about a monster in which the Doctor does not feature at all. One of the most challenging things about this was finding a way to bring the Angels to life and make them scary when everyone already knows what they are – everyone, that is, except for the poor sap who encounters them. This is ramshackle in places, but I think it just about hangs together. If you forward it on, you have to promise not to give away the ending.

 

The Twelfth Doctor Gets A Phone Call

(The Doctor Who Companion, August 2018)

I’ve often wondered about the first time we see Peter Capaldi. His unanticipated blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in ‘Day of the Doctor’ – “No, sir – all thirteen!” – was one of the show’s key talking points, if only because you never hear about it again. It’s always possible that the Twelfth Doctor just turned up, knowing that was where he needed to be and when, but I’ve always liked to think that his immediate predecessor got in touch – something that could likely only happen once he knew there would be another Doctor coming along, which should give you some idea as to when this all takes place. The whole thing is a bit meta, but I quite like doing meta; it keeps me sane in between all the fan bitching.

 

Love That In A Family Dwells

(The Doctor Who Companion, December 2018)

We don’t get Christmas specials any more, it seems. We certainly didn’t last year, a schedule change that caused a great deal of fuss amongst the online community, most of whom were suitably disgruntled that they would have to spend December 25th actually hanging out with family members rather than simply crashing in front of the TV. I seem to have been one of the few people who wasn’t bothered – I never enjoy Christmas Day episodes because when you’re in my line of work there is a sudden and immediate urge to blog about them, something I’ve frankly never wanted to do after several sherries and a bucket load of mince pies. New Year’s Day is a much better candidate, although I accept that I’m in a minority.

Anyway, to plug the gap between Ranskoor and ‘Resolution’, I came up with this, which tells the story of what happens when the Doctor and her fam visit…look, you’ll just have to read the thing and find out, won’t you? One advantage of doing a story which is deliberately comic in tone is that you can advance the plot and cram in all sorts of expository information simply by including as many unexpected non-sequiteurs as possible: it’s a creative risk, but it works, provided you get the tone just right. I still don’t know if I did, but it was one of those occasions where I actually enjoyed the writing process, as opposed to simply having written. Those moments are gold dust, and must be seized without fear.

 

A Martian Sends A Postcard Home

(The Doctor Who Companion, August 2019)

Every summer, when we can, my family and I head down to the same camping field on the coast of Pembrokeshire. There we’ll indulge in campfire singalongs, quaff the local ale and spend hours on the beach looking for starfish and crabs. It usually buckets it down at least once, the clouds rolling in off the Irish Sea like an advancing invasion force, but you’re in Wales, and you basically come to expect it. In any case, that particular location (right down to a reasonably accurate depiction of its topography) is the setting for this little tale involving a lost Ice Warrior who winds up shipwrecked and blunders into, of all things, a village fete. Does the Doctor make an appearance? You’ll have to keep reading to find out – but it’s not a spoiler to reveal that several of the supporting characters are named after DWC staff, something I still don’t think they’ve noticed.

 

Wedding Crasher

(Brian of Morbius, October 2019)

Emily and I celebrated fifteen years of marriage this autumn. I still remember that morning as if it were yesterday: rising, sleepily as we both drove to separate houses in Reading to prepare; the argument I had with the insurance company, ripe and bruising after the argument we’d had with my aunt the previous evening over the reception place markings. Eating brioche with the best man and his wife in their housing estate semi, the pacing in the vestry when she was ten minutes late, and then that thrilled, anticipated moment where you see her walking down the aisle, at her most radiant. On balance, it was a good day.

The wedding of Harriet and Nick does not go to plan. But they might get their happy ending, thanks to an unexpected interruption. This was written in a rush job, and it shows, but it hangs together by the thread of a poorly-tied ribbon long enough to load it into the back of the car to open after the honeymoon. A disclaimer: Nick is not based on me, and Harriet is not based on Emily, and while Harriet’s mother was cut from the cloth of a real person, that person was not my mother-in-law. Probably.

 

Furby From The Deep

(The Doctor Who Companion, December 2019)

It’s the UNIT Christmas party, and the Third Doctor is reluctantly in attendance – along with Jo, the Brigadier, Yates, Benton and some sinister-looking toys. What could possibly go wrong? I’ve been wanting to write this for years – I even started it once, but there were technical problems and it was necessary to begin again from scratch. The intent was always to make it feel like something Terrance Dicks might have churned out, which means it concentrates more on the story it’s telling than the way it’s being told: Dicks had a flair for prose but was never one for literary flourishes, except where they were really needed. Does it feel like him? Probably not, but it has a beginning and a middle and an end, which is perhaps the best you can hope for. This will take you a while, so I strongly advise making a cup of tea first.

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Wedding Crasher

Figuratively speaking, Harriet had cold feet.

It was October, and while there was a nip in the air there was still a bit of warmth left in the Hampshire sun. The days may have been shortening, as the year performed its merry dance with the gusto of a drunken relative at a sixtieth birthday ceilidh, but you couldn’t exactly call it cold. It was more the expectation of cold, an opening act for the chill to come, as if autumn were in the middle of an acoustic set before abruptly vanishing into the wings just in time for the main event.

Whenever she actually thought about it, Harriet decided the whole notion that the changing day lengths were something to be remarked upon was quietly ridiculous. It would start in late June – right after the equinox – with the words “Well, that’s it now, the nights will start drawing in”. The process took six months, through summer beach holidays and festival season and the apple collecting and the ridiculous Halloween costumes that were in the shops on the first of September every year without fail, through fireworks and John Lewis Christmas adverts until just a few particularly short days before the bank holiday. The return journey, back to hazy afternoons and thundery barbecues, took another six months, rounding out the year quite nicely. The nights were always growing progressively longer or progressively shorter, and there was never a time when they weren’t. The whole system was perpetually in flux. So why even mention it?

No: Harriet’s cold feet had nothing to do with temperature, but she always thought it was important to denote the difference. She looked down at her actual feet, encased in a pair of ridiculous white shoes that she had never worn before – save ten minutes’ breaking in the week before the wedding – and would likely never wear again, unless she and Nick wound up visiting Ascot, or somewhere like it. And seeing as neither of them were the betting sort – “Gamble responsibly?” Nick would snort at the TV ads, before declaring it an oxymoron – this was probably not going to happen.

Harriet smoothed down an imaginary crease in her dress, and was gazing in the mirror when the door opened. Her mother, all red velvet and feathers. The hat would probably get stuck in a sliding door. That would be a story and a half. Harriet found herself chuckling inwardly at the thought, although she kept her face as pokerish as she possibly could.

“I’m about ready.” The woman bustled about the room, shutting windows and turning off the lamps. “Took me nearly fifteen minutes to straighten the plumage on this thing. Still, we can go now.”

“Because, of course, it’s all about you.”

“Oh, don’t start.”

“I really don’t want to start anything. We’re late enough as it is.”

“He’ll wait.” Her mother shrugged. “Least, he will if he’s got any sense.”

“Mum…” Harriet leaned on one arm, tentatively.

The eyebrows narrowed. “Oh dear. I know that look. Fine, what is it?”

“Why am I marrying him?”

“Because he’s adequately handsome, reasonably educated, and financially solvent. And more to the point, he puts up with you.”

“I think he’s terrified of you,” said Harriet.

“Good. That’s precisely the way it should be. Now come on – ” and her mother tugged her off the bed with one arm, re-adjusting her hat with the other – “before the salmon starts to decompose.”

 

* * * * *

 

Nick was on his penultimate fingernail – the rest chewed down to rags – when the vicar opened the door to the vestry. “Here. Finally.”

Nick was already a bundle of nerves and took exception to his tone. “We’re not paying you by the hour, you know.”

“I wish you were. I’d make a fortune. Are you set?”

“Give me a moment.” The groom stood, adjusting his corsage. “Where’s Bill?”

“Your best man is outside, placating a few guests who are even more anxious than you are. A moment ago he was reassuring your elderly aunt that he can get her back to the hospice in time for Strictly.”

“That’ll be Iris,” muttered Nick. “Never mind ballroom dancing, she’s a complete drama queen.”

“Look,” said the vicar, crossly. “Do you want to get married or not? Only I’ve got another wedding this afternoon and a sermon to write for tomorrow.”

“Well, that’s the question.” Nick stared through the frosted glass that was the vestry window, the exterior beyond an unreadable collage of blacks and greens and greys. “I mean, I thought I did. So did Harriet. But lately it just seems like it’s – ”

 

* * * * *

 

“ – too soon,” Harriet was saying. “You know, it was three months. Three! And he was drunk. And so was I, and one thing led to another and we wound up visiting the outlet centre for an engagement ring because it was late night shopping.”

Her mother shut the door of the rental. “And they say romance is dead.”

She leaned through the window. “Park it in the short stay and come back. We don’t want to get ticketed.”

The driver nodded and pulled away from the kerb. Harriet stared at the busy road, counting the cars. Red. Green. Silver. Blue. Another silver. The sky was a rich azure, pockmarked with dark grey clouds, the biggest of which threatened to block out the sun. Harriet wondered if it would rain, and then wondered whether that would be appropriate.

Her mother was stabbing at the screen of an ageing smartphone.

“What are you doing?”

“Just checking in on Foursquare.”

“Nobody uses that any more.”

“I do.” Her mother glared at her frostily. “You can use the thirty seconds’ breathing space to get yourself presentable.”

Harriet turned away – and almost collided with a man in his thirties, wearing a long brown coat, who was pelting up the street in a tremendous hurry. Harriet tottered on her heels, struggling to keep herself from falling. “Hey! Watch it!”

The man in the coat turned and gave her the briefest of apologetic waves. “Sorry!”

Harriet seethed as he disappeared round a corner, and then turned her attention back to the present.

“The thing is,” she said, as her mother picked up the train on her dress and moved it away from the gutter into which she’d absent-mindedly allowed it to trail, “I just don’t know if he’s the sort of person who’d jump in front of me to stop a bullet. How can I marry him not being sure of that?”

“What a ridiculous cogitation.” Her mother straightened her jacket, which had wandered skewiff in the car. “Who gets the chance to know a thing like that? Who, apart from the military or people who meet in those ridiculous films your father always enjoyed? Nobody.” She had her hands on her hips now, which meant she was both attentive and cross. “That’s who.”

Harriet sighed. “Still, you know what I me-”

“No. I don’t. I never do. Your mind works on a different level to me, and I’ve accepted it. I accepted it long ago. But I don’t understand you. Here you are, minutes away from the chance to be happier than I ever was, and we’re standing in the street discussing…”

She fumed. “Keanu flippin’ Reeves.”

“I just – ”

“Yes. You just. As in just now. Why couldn’t we have had all this out in the car?”

“BECAUSE YOU WERE ON YOUR BLOODY MOBILE TRYING TO REBOOK THE OSTEOPATH! ON A SATURDAY!”

“AND I WOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO IF YOU HADN’T – ”

“Excuse me. Ladies?” said a polite voice.

The two-person bridal party ceased its affectations, and turned in the direction of the voice: the best man was standing by the church doorway, trying to look casual and not quite managing it.

“Are you ready to get married?” said Bill. “Only the caretaker forgot to adjust the heating this morning and they’ve had to keep the doors open, and I think everyone inside can hear you.”

 

* * * * *

 

Harriet had misjudged the length of the church. This meant she was already at the front while the organist was still halfway through Haydn’s Trumpet Voluntary, which meant that she had to stand next to her husband-to-be for an embarrassing length of time while everyone waited for him to finish.

Nick used the time to pay compliments. “You look amazing.”

She kept her eyes fixed straight ahead. “Thanks.”

“I mean it,” Nick said. “It’s just the most incredible dress I’ve ever – ”

“I know,” Harriet hissed. “You said. Thank you.”

“Right. I’m sorry, I’m just nervous.”

The organist finished with a flourish. A couple of people clapped, which was frankly awkward, as it wasn’t generally done, and the vicar made his displeasure known by glowering at them.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began – ‘Dearly beloved’ having gone out of style round about the time Hugh Grant was caught in a BMW with a prostitute – and that was about as far as he got before all the windows shattered.

 

* * * * *

 

The thing on the church carpet was reptilian in appearance, scaled and grimy, the shape of a horse and the size of a large rhino. Two human-length arms protruded from its front, in addition to the four legs upon which it was now crouching. A coral-coloured fin and two bulbous, empty eyes adorned its long, sleek head, while at the creature’s rear end a spiked tail lashed back and forth in front of the lectern.

Harriet was up on her feet, staring hard. Oddly her first thought had not been one of abject terror – although from the looks of her wedding guests there was plenty of that to go around in any case – but rather a scientific conundrum, namely how a single animal could have been responsible for the destruction of every window in the church when it had presumably come through just one. Her question was answered as the creature opened its mouth and roared – a piercing, ear-shattering noise that would surely have broken all the glass in the room had there been any more glass to break.

Harriet glanced over at Nick. He was standing next to her, his head lopsided, a look of utter incredulity plastered to his whitened face, as if he could not quite believe what he was seeing. His breathing had quickened and there was a rip in the shoulder of his jacket that was staining crimson where the glass had torn it, along with some of the flesh beneath. He seemed not to have noticed, and Harriet decided that this was probably not the time to bring it up.

“This is a dream,” Nick was muttering. “And I know it’s a dream, so I can wake up.”

“It’s not a dream,” Harriet said.

“I can wake up I can wake up I can – ”

“It’s not a bloody dream!” she snapped.

The creature was shaking bits of glass out of what Harriet assumed must be its mane. It whinnied (if that was the right word) and stamped. Then it reached out an arm and grabbed the vicar, who would very soon wish he’d got out of the way sooner.

“No!” was all the unfortunate clergyman had time to get out before the creature propelled him into a wall, whereupon he slumped to the floor with a dismal thud, then lapsing into silence.

Harriet looked around for her mother, who was cowering behind the organ. “Don’t just stand there!” she hissed, when they made eye contact. “Come and hide!” She was beckoning frantically, and the feathers in her hat were dusted with tiny shards of glass.

Harriet shook her head. “We’d never make it.”

The beast was directly in their path to the organ, and Harriet sensed – correctly, as it turned out – that any attempt to cross that path was liable to end in tears. She risked a glance at the congregation, who were in the process of either fainting, sobbing or running. She observed Bill running out into the street and away from the carnage that was presumably about to unfold, and felt a pang of annoyance, even though she’d never much liked him.

She turned to Nick. “What do we – ”

The church had a rear door; it led through to the vestry and the back exit and it was through this door that the newcomer arrived. He half ran, half fell through into the main body of the church, skidding to a halt in front of the creature, beholding it with something that resembled quiet and considered alarm, but not surprise. He was out of breath, although no sweat seemed to glisten across his forehead.

Harriet recognised his coat. It was the man in the street, the one with whom she had almost colli- no, wait a minute, the one who had almost collided with her. Now that he was standing there, she could see him properly. He looked to be in his late thirties, with dark spiked hair that rose from the top of an angular head. He was attractive but not threateningly so, well-defined and perhaps just a shade too thin. The coat swamped a pinstriped brown suit and necktie; on another day he wouldn’t look out of place selling houses in London, and for all Harriet knew that was what he did anyway.

“Sorry,” he said. “Hello.”

Something inside Harriet snapped. “Hello?” she echoed. “This – this thing comes through the window and nearly kills us, and still might, and all you can say is ‘Hello’?”

“Well, it’s a start,” said the man. “I mean, I was going to say ‘Is everybody all right?’, before you interrupted.”

“What is it?” said Harriet, indicating the monster, which seemed to be pacing up and down the width of the church, leering at her. “Is it something to do with you?”

“No. Well, kind of.” The stranger wore an expression that might have been construed as guilt. Harriet thought his eyes looked old, or at least older than the rest of him. “It got out.”

“Out of where?”

“Doesn’t matter. Listen.” He turned to her, staring hard – there was fear in those eyes, she noticed, or at least a quiet desperation. “You need to get everybody out of here now, so I can contain it.”

“Can’t you just take it away somewhere without people?”

The stranger seemed to consider this, before changing his mind. “Could, but no. Too risky. He seems to have stopped here for the moment. I think I need to subdue him before he moves again.”

“It’s a he, then?”

“Probably. I mean, the noisy ones generally are.”

“So we move, then.”

“Yes. And keep quiet about it. The more noise you make, the more – ”

“Harriet!” In the excitement she had almost forgotten her mother, who was still hissing beside the organ, although it was now less of a hiss and more an anguished squeak. “Who on earth is this travelling salesman and why isn’t he doing anything to help?”

“Excuse me?” the stranger addressed her in the way you might expect a disgruntled maths teacher to address a disobedient child. “Helping is top of the list, thank you very much, if you’ll kindly stop panicking and let me get on with it.”

The woman bristled. “Just who are you, anyway? And what the hell is this thing?”

“I’m the Doctor. And this is a Myrka. Nasty things, usually bred for war. And when they’re cornered they get agitated, so I’d appreciate it if you could just calm – ”

The monster reared and rallied. The head threw back and it gave another roar, rising onto its hind legs, which were flailing wildly in mid-air.

Too late, Harriet realised that when they came down, they would most likely land on her head.

 

* * * * *

 

When she thought about it later, Harriet recollected that things seemed to happen in slow motion. First there was that horrid pause as the legs stopped flailing and began their downward descent, then there was a cry of “NO!”, and then she felt herself being pushed out of the way as Nick suddenly barged in front of her, standing directly in the path of the descending hoof as it came down onto his temples.

Harriet didn’t have time to scream, and then Nick was falling, falling and clutching the top of his head, but – what was this? – he actually didn’t look too badly hurt, and now the monster was flailing wildly from some sort of aggravation it was evidently experiencing, and then it turned with a crash and landed directly on top of the organ which had thankfully been vacated just seconds before, its tail three inches from Harriet’s mother’s chest.

There was a sudden and eerie silence.

The dust settled. The congregation got to their feet, shaky and upset and still trying to work out exactly what was going on. Harriet’s mother came out from behind the organ and ran over to embrace her daughter. Harriet herself was kneeling over the unconscious Nick, trying to work out if he was in fact unconscious or actually dead.

The man called the Doctor was brushing his coat.

“Let’s have a look,” he said, dropping to a squat and pulling a small tube-shaped device from his pocket – Harriet took it to be some sort of multi-purpose thermometer or torch – and shining it into Nick’s temples, once he’d rolled back the eyelids. “Brilliant! Don’t worry, he’s just unconscious.”

Harriet blinked away her tears, stunned. “He’s – he’s not – ”

“No,” said the Doctor, drawing out the sound of the word and drawing in his breath at the same time, giving it a warm, gutteral emphasis it arguably didn’t deserve. “The hoof clipped the side of his head. Just a scratch. He’s gonna have a whopper of a headache when he wakes up, though.”

Harriet shook her own head. “I was so sure it was going to crush him.”

“It nearly did. ‘Til I threw it off balance.”

“How?”

“With this.” The Doctor waved the thermometer at her. “Sonic feedback resonance cascade. Inaudible to humans; gave the poor old Myrka here the fright of his life. Bit of a last resort – I always find it rather cruel, mostly because they usually lose a bit of their hearing. But we were out of options. It was that or watch it crush your fiancé.”

Despite everything, Harriet smiled. “You saved him.”

The Doctor gave her a meaningful look. “And he saved you.”

Harriet was still processing the implications of this when she glanced over at the Myrka. “What about that? Is it dead?”

“No, just stunned,” said the Doctor. “I’ve got a few friends who can come and take care of him, get him to a place where he can’t be harmed. And where he can’t harm anyone else, of course,” he added, quickly.

“Just who are you?” Harriet’s mother demanded. “Coming in here with your weird gadgets and your mysterious friends and – ”

From the far wall of the church there was a groan.

“Sylvia,” said the Doctor, clearly anxious to kill two birds with one stone, “Go and check on the vicar, will you?”

Harriet’s mother bristled. “My name’s not Sylvia.”

The Doctor shrugged. “Well, if the cap fits.”

 

* * * * *

 

A few minutes later, when the men in uniforms had come with their trucks and taken the Myrka away to what Harriet assumed was some sort of heavily-armoured paddock, they were all sitting at the front of the church, recovering. The guests were subdued, a damp cocktail of relief and quiet reverence, as if they had been privy to something terrible which was now over without anyone fully understanding what had happened.

The Doctor was applying a bandage to Nick’s head, and dabbing it with alcohol. “Sorry,” he said, as the groom winced. “Haven’t done this for a while. Bit out of practice.”

“I thought you said you were a doctor,” Nick said.

“Well, yeah, but not of medicine. Though…” He paused, staring off into the distance in reflection. “Actually, no. I did do medicine. Glasgow, 1880s. Can’t remember.”

Harriet glanced over at the vicar, who was sitting on a plastic chair with a cup of tea. “What about him?”

“He’ll be fine,” announced her mother, who had bustled over with a bunch of towels. “He doesn’t even seem to have any concussion, though I’ve told him to get it checked out. After that we’ll need to set another date – ”

“No we won’t,” said Harriet. “We’ll give him a few minutes, then we’ll carry on.”

Her mother looked at her, speechless. “You can’t be serious.”

Harriet got to her feet. “You know what, Mum? For the first time in a while I think I actually am.”

“But – not like this! Surely not like this? And don’t you want to think about thi-”

“Mum.” Harriet’s voice was calm, self-assured, decisive. “There’s no thinking. We’re getting married, and we’re getting married now.”

She turned to Nick. “That is, if you still want to.”

Nick grinned. It was a grin that abruptly faded when the simple matter of logistics kicked in. “What about Bill?”

“I’ve tried getting hold of him,” said Harriet. “But he jumped on a non-stop to Plymouth, and he won’t be back for ages.”

“He was useless anyway,” Nick shrugged. “But we can’t have a wedding without a best man.”

They both looked at the Doctor.

“Oh, all right,” he said.

 

* * * * *

 

Rings or no rings, everyone agreed it was a lovely ceremony – even if some of the photos were a trifle unorthodox. What was more the hotel had managed to keep everything on ice and thus the fears about decaying salmon were unfounded.

The Doctor was currently in shovelling a forkful of it into his mouth. Harriet had insisted he come along. “You’ve saved our lives,” she had said. “It’s the least we can do.”

The Doctor had looked momentarily indecisive. “I should…I mean, I should really…the Ood, they keep…hmm. Oh, why not?” he had replied after the sort of dithering that would have impressed even Hugh Grant. “Really not my thing, but another day can’t hurt. It’s all relative.”

Harriet hadn’t understood any of this, but there were a lot of things she hadn’t understood about today, and she was coming to the conclusion – as she crossed the floor to where the Doctor was standing – that it probably wasn’t a bad thing. “Enjoying the food?” she said.

The Doctor put down his plate. “It’s delicious,” he said, wiping an oily mouth clean with a napkin. “Haven’t had salmon like this since Greenland, 1808. Coronation of Frederick the sixth. Lovely man. Very fond of darts.”

“Right,” Harriet, wondering how she was supposed to respond to these ersatz monologues.

The Doctor glanced over at her. “Are you all right?”

“I am, actually,” said Harriet. It was partly the wine, but her heart felt lighter, while her head was gradually vacuuming away the fog. “Just between you and me, I’d been having second thoughts. And then…you know. Gone.”

The Doctor nodded. “Speaking of which, where is he?”

Harriet surveyed the dimly-lit function room, and spotted Nick, in the middle of an intense conversation with a visibly upset pensioner. “Over there,” she said. “I think he’s trying to placate Aunt Iris. She’s upset about missing Strictly. Started half an hour ago.”

The Doctor appeared to be formulating some sort of idea in his head. “Well, I could…you know. I could probably do something about that.”

Harriet’s eyebrow arched. “How?”

The Doctor scratched his ear. “I’ve got a time machine.”

Harriet nearly spat out her wine, but managed at the last minute to swallow. “You know the weird thing? I actually believe that.”

“Just a small number, mind you, and doesn’t always work properly, but I could probably drop her off, say, an hour ago.”

“Really?”

“Yes. But you can’t tell anyone. It’s not something I do except in dire emergencies, which seems to apply here. Still, we can’t let it get out. I’ll never live it down.” The Doctor sighed. “Look at me, going soft in my old age.”

“But hold on.” Harriet’s face darkened. “If you could go back in time, couldn’t you just…I don’t know. Nip back and fix things? So all the stuff earlier won’t happen?”

“Doesn’t work like that.” The Doctor swigged his lemonade. “I can’t go back along my own timeline. Creates a paradox. Seven shades of hell break loose. Anyway. When you think about it, would you really have wanted this afternoon to be any different?”

Harriet thought about it and decided she probably didn’t.

“But if you’re from the future,” she continued, “which you must be, seeing as you have a time machine, do you know about us? I mean what happens to us?”

“Not offhand,” said the Doctor. “Big universe, lots of people. Can’t keep track of everyone.”

“But you could find out.”

“Theoretically,” he replied. “But I’m not going to.”

Harriet nodded, a little disappointed and also relieved.

“You wanted to know if you lived happily ever after,” the Doctor said, probing her thoughts. “Didn’t you?”

Harriet shrugged, and gave a small smile.

“Nobody does, you know. Not really. But you make the best of whatever you’re given. And you promise each other that that’ll be enough. And then, whenever things are bad, you push on.”

Harriet’s smile widened. Yes. That would do.

“Speaking of pushing on,” the Doctor said, putting down his glass, “I really should be making a move. Places to see, planets to liberate, that sort of thing. I’ll go and collect your aunt.”

“Nick’s aunt,” Harriet corrected him. “Listen, – ”

“Don’t thank me again,” said the Doctor, his hand up. “There’s really no need.”

“No, I was going to ask. What about you? Is there – ”

The Doctor smiled at her. It was the sort of smile that spoke volumes; it seemed to hide a wealth of sadness, of heartbreak and recollection and pushing on. There were stories, she sensed, that she would never get to hear, and she realised – in that moment, she finally realised – that they’d been in the presence of a man who was full of secrets, who played only the bare minimum of the cards he kept strapped to his chest, and that this sort of intervention, this breezing in and out of lives, was what he did every day.

“Good luck to you Harriet,” he said, and with a wink he was gone.

Harriet watched him leave, a straight-backed gentlemen pushing a wheelchair, disappearing as if he’d never really been there in the first place.

Nick joined her at the buffet table. “I’ve tried calming her down, but nothing doing,” he said. “I don’t know why they can’t stick iPlayer on a couple of the nursing home TVs.”

“I don’t think you need to worry,” said Harriet, gesturing at the departing Doctor. “It’s all in hand.”

She squeezed Nick’s palm. “And speaking of which,” she said, “I think you owe me a dance, my darling husband.”

Nick smiled. “It worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Harriet. “I think it did.”

“But there’s one thing I don’t understand.”

She looked at him, incredulous. “Only one?”

“Well. I mean, there’s a bunch of – but look, who was he? He waltzes in, there’s chaos, I get a whopping headache, then he’s off again, like he’s never been here. We didn’t even know his name.”

Harriet gave her new husband a kiss.

“Does it matter?”

 

For Emily, fifteen years after ‘I do’.

 

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