Saturday, December 29, 2012

Three Reasons Why Doctor Who Books Need To Come Back

Technically speaking, I should start by pointing out that Doctor Who books aren't actually gone. In fact, there's something like five lines of Doctor Who fiction out there--the basic novels, which have been a bit dormant but will see three new releases in April; a line of fancy hardcovers that have attracted jaw-droppingly good authors like Stephen Baxter and Michael Moorcock (I'm still holding out hope for a Harlan Ellison entry in this series, although I know it's not going to happen); a line of "Quick Reads" designed to be finished over a lunch-break; a kid's series of 2-in-1 novels; and a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque run of books. After all that, I can kind of understand why the BBC doesn't want a line of novels for the classic series cluttering up the works.

Nonetheless, I miss the books that were coming out before the TV series relaunched in 2005. Even though there was a fairly steep dip in quality during the changeover from Virgin to the BBC, the book series had recovered reasonably well by the end, and produced some really excellent work like 'The Tomorrow Windows', 'Camera Obscura' and 'Fear Itself'. It's a line that deserved to continue on its own merits and on the merits of its sales...but there are also three other reasons I'd bring back the Past Doctor Adventures book line.

1) There is a place for a line of Doctor Who books for older fans. I realize that this is a very fine line to walk, because Doctor Who is a family series and I don't want to see younger fans excluded...but at the same time, the genie's kind of out of the bottle, here. For a good fifteen years, the Doctor Who series was written with an eye towards the older fan, and we got to see stories written for a more mature reader...and I don't necessarily mean that in terms of sex and violence, either. 'Love and War', to choose a particularly excellent and seminal example, examines the Doctor's relationship with his companions and his ultimately alien perspective on the universe in a way that the TV series will never be able to do, simply because I don't think the TV series is willing to risk that kind of unsympathetic view of the Doctor. Not every book was that good or that mature (I'm looking at you, Chris Bulis) but there was a potential there that shouldn't be discarded.

2) The book line served as a laboratory for improving the series. Because the book line was for older fans, and because it wasn't under the pressure of being a flagship show on Saturday nights, they had a lot of license to experiment. The book lines came up with a number of interesting ideas, like a time-travelling archaeologist, or a human/Time Lord hybrid able to deal with the Doctor on his own level, or a view of the Doctor as a myth scattered throughout human history, or a Time War that would lead to the destruction of Gallifrey and the end of the Time Lords, or...basically, re-reading the books (like I'm doing here alongside my wife, just as a reminder) shows just how much of the concepts that became essential to the success of the new series came out of people trying new takes on a classic series and seeing what worked. That's the kind of thing that can and should happen again.

3) The book line gave a lot of excellent writers their first break. The Doctor Who book line had an open submissions policy, both in the Virgin and BBC era, and a lot of fans made the jump to pro through the book line. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell (whatever you may think of his work) and Matt Jones all went from fan to novelist to TV writer, and even some of the already established TV writers (like Moffat and RTD) started their work for Doctor Who in the novels. It didn't always work--we got the occasional Neil Penswick--but it really encouraged a lot of talented people and gave them an opening, which is something that I think feels appropriate for the BBC to do.

There are more reasons, some of which really can't be done right now due to the narrative primacy of the TV show...but I think there's a place for a line of well-written adult novels in Doctor Who, even now. I just don't know if the BBC will see it my way anytime soon.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thoughts on the Doctor Who Christmas Special

I showed extraordinary patience yesterday by waiting to watch this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special--most of my family was en route back to Minnesota when it aired, and far too exhausted to sit through it when they got home a bit later. As such, it wasn't until tonight that I saw the continuation of the series. Some thoughts below the cut, for those who are waiting longer still...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why Doctor Who Doesn't Work In Fantasy

Someone (I believe it was Paul Magrs, but I'm not entirely sure) once said that the TARDIS isn't a machine for traveling in time and space, it's a machine for traveling between genres. This is certainly in evidence in the new series, with the Doctor wandering through Westerns and horror stories and all manner of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, but it's been a part of the series almost since the beginning. Sometimes the story is a comedy, sometimes a tragedy, sometimes out and out horror, and yet somehow the Doctor seems naturally to fit into all of them. It's one of the things that has made the series so refreshingly renewable over the years; the Doctor has been able to essentially borrow from whatever's modern to make himself seem relevant.

And yet, when you look at the few attempts to blend in with fantasy, they've almost always been dreadful failures. 'Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark', 'Autumn Mist'...really, about the best of them was 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', and that keyed on the idea that there was no such thing. Even Paul Cornell's take on "The Doctor does a trip into a fantasy universe" was his weakest novel, and he's sodding brilliant. Why is it that the Doctor can't go into a high fantasy novel the same way he can wander into a Western or a crime caper?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that Doctor Who doesn't do fantasy. It's firmly set in a rational universe with an orderly set of scientific rules, even if they are handwavy "psychic paper" and "sonic screwdriver" and "anti-plastic" type rules. People will point out that a sonic screwdriver is basically just a magic wand with a different name, but that misses the point. It's the name that's actually important. Doctor Who states that everything is explicable, even if we aren't smart enough or experienced enough or knowledgable enough to understand the explanation yet. That's a pretty key difference from a world where High Prophecy and gods simply tell you that this is the way things are.

That means that whenever the Doctor enters a fantasy universe, one of two things has to happen. Either first, he has to come up with a scientific explanation for it all. These are usually leaden and dull, and tend to reduce the whole thing to an exercise in mapping handwavy science fiction explanations onto handwavy fantasy explanations. There's nothing intrinsically exciting about a horse with a horn on it, even if it's a horn with extra brain in it that gives the horse telepathy. Fantasy is all about the poetic and the symbolic, not the literal; things are not necessarily meant to have an explanation.

The alternative is that the Doctor surrenders his narrative primacy, acknowledging that yes, this is magic and cannot be understood, even by a Time Lord. This is in some ways the far worse alternative, because the thing that's special about the Doctor when he travels to another genre is the way he warps it about himself. The Doctor is fun to read about in a Western because he doesn't carry a gun and he wanders off to talk to the Native Americans and comes back as an honorary member of the tribe. The Doctor is fun to read about in a crime caper because he wanders into the head office of the local mob boss and says, "Hello, can I have a spot of tea with you while we chat about the murders you've committed?" The Doctor is, in a good story, the center of the narrative. That doesn't happen when he goes into a fantasy story. Instead, he has to follow the rules of that world. The Doctor is never fun when he's following the rules.

I won't say that it's impossible to do a Doctor Who story that involves fantasy elements--'Battlefield' pulls it off by suggesting that a future Doctor will be the one to square the circle and deal with magic on its home ground--but for the reasons above, I think it's far riskier to try and there's less payoff. My advice to future Doctor Who authors would probably be, "If you want to write a high fantasy novel...go have fun. There's plenty of publishers out there who take 'em."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Random Trailer Thoughts

I went out and saw 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' over the weekend, and while I don't know that I'm ready to write about the movie, I'm interested in writing about the trailers a bit. No trailers for 'Man of Steel' or 'Star Trek...INTO DARKNESS!' (I've decided that this is the correct way to write the title), but we did get some interesting ones. Random thoughts follow:

1) Were the makers of 'The Lone Ranger' going for an emotional sensation of "sad and empty inside, except maybe with a quiet ache that tells you you've given up on joy"? Because if it was, they freaking nailed it. Every moment of that trailer looked joyless, mechanical and dull, compensating for a lack of emotion with sound and fury. And it's also a classic case of Hollywood whitewashing, with Johnny Depp getting dressed up like a Native American so that they have a "name" actor in a major role. This screams "terrible" to me.

2) 'Warm Bodies' looks cute, but I'm not sold on the idea of "super-evil zombies" for the regular zombies to show how nice they are by opposing. Still, it does look like an entertaining parody of the "paranormal romance" sub-genre that has become a bit too prevalent since 'Twilight' hit the stands. (This is not to say, by way of clarification, that I am against them in principle. There are some great writers out there doing paranormal romance stories, like local author Mary Janice Davidson for example. Just saying that they're cranking them out a bit.)

3) 'Epic' this point, I kind of feel like the non-Pixar studios (Dreamworks, Fox Animation) have solidified their position as the bland, generically acceptable time-waster alternative to Pixar. Want a kid's movie that's CGI and kind of funny and exciting, but don't want to worry that actual quality might challenge your kid's mind in some way? Spend two hours in front of a film by the creators of 'Ice Age'! It'll be like they never watched anything at all! Basically, I'm saying that there is a very narrow band of quality to a picture like this, and this probably is going to be neither bad nor good. It will be there.

4) I was really surprised to find out that 'After Earth' wasn't a very clever reworking of the narrative-free, but extremely cool book 'After Man' into an actual science fiction movie. I thought I actually recognized some of the animal designs from the book. Now the only real reason I had to see this is gone. (Clever stunt casting, though, making Will and Jaden into an actual father/son team.)

5) Is it just me, or does 'Oblivion' feel vaguely like every other movie you've ever seen? Just something about every scene seems to conspire to give you a vague sense of deja vu. Underground rebels, Tom Cruise as One Man Determined to Find Out the TRUTH, creepy laser just all seems kind of "been there, done that".

6) I like the idea of 'Pacific Rim', but it does kind of feel like it'd be hard to stretch out the concept beyond what we've already seen in the trailers. I mean, they show us that big monsters climb out of a hole in reality that opened up under the Pacific Ocean, they show that they rampage a bunch, and they show that human beings build giant robots to fight them. Isn't that pretty much the movie, right there? I mean, is there a plot twist that you could wring out of that, or is the only bit we didn't see in the trailer going to be, "And the humans win. The End!"? (I felt kind of the same way about 'Real Steel', by the way.)

7) Wow, we got a lot of trailers. In addition to all those, we also got 'Beautiful Creatures', which felt like your bog-standard "Hey, that 'Twilight' thing is doing pretty well. Let's find something kind of similar to that, then adapt it and make a few million!" I don't think I'd enjoy this. Then again, I don't think I'm the target audience.

See any trailers you liked last weekend? Talk about them in the comments!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Roger Goodell and the New Football

Football commissioner Roger Goodell has been talked about a lot lately by football pundits. He's taking a lot of flack at the moment; his announcement that the NFL is talking about replacing the kickoff is being viewed with approximately the same amount of enthusiasm as New Coke, the recent changes to enforcement of illegal hits are being viewed as an attempt to neuter the game, and of course, everyone who follows football knows that his suspensions for the New Orleans players who deliberately attempted to injure their opponents have been vacated by his predecessors. (For those of you who don't follow football, um, yeah. I talk about it sometimes. Sorry if it's not your thing.)

But here's the thing--there's a common element to all of these stories (along with a couple of other ones floating around the periphery, like expanding the playoffs to 14 teams and possibly creating new teams in LA and London.) Reading them and hearing them gives me a lot of sympathy for Goodell. Because what he's trying to do is change the culture of football, and that doesn't come easily.

Historically, football players have prided themselves not so much on speed or strength as on "toughness"--the ability to endure pain and continue to play at a professional level. Men like Ronnie Lott were admired for their determination to get back on the field no matter what the consequences (Lott literally had part of his finger amputated rather than undergo surgery that would keep him off the field.) Dishing out punishment to your opponent, and showing that you can take more punishment than your opponent, was considered to be how you proved yourself as a real man on the field.

But the players that played in that era are old men now. More specifically, they are crippled old men--a lifetime of playing in that environment has left them with brain damage, arthritis, atrophied muscles and misfiring is becoming clear to everyone that the problem with sacrificing your body for victories on the field is that the victories on the field last only a moment, while the pain and weakness lasts a lifetime. If for no other reason than simple legal considerations, the NFL has to take an active role in trying to reduce the number of on-field injuries. At the very least, they open themselves up to negligence lawsuits if they don't.

But since pretty much everyone announcing, commentating, and generally professionally opining on football is a former player, they all come out of the old culture where enduring pain was a point of pride. Paul Tagliabue's vacation of the Saints' suspension boiled down to "Yes, these players did deliberately accept money to try to injure players on the opposing team in an effort to knock them out of the game, but I don't think that's worth suspending anyone over." Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner admitted on 'Mike and Mike' that they didn't see what the big deal was...they knew that defenses were trying to injure them the entire time they played, and they just saw it as part of the game. Let's stress this--a man who retired because he suffered double-digit concussions is saying that he doesn't think it's a big deal to try to knock someone out of a game. The cognitive dissonance is absolutely stunning.

It's the same with all of these changes, really. The change to the kickoff sounds like it would actually be great for the game above and beyond simply reducing injuries (the scoring team gets the ball back with 4th and 15 from the 30, so they basically punt instead of kicking off. But since there's about a 10% higher chance of converting a 4th and 15 than recovering an onside kick, it might make the last few minutes of games that much more exciting.) But old-school players like Mike Ditka think it's a terrible idea, because they feel like the kickoff is where you separate the men from the boys in football. In the case of Ditka, it separates the men with hip replacements from the boys, but Ditka doesn't seem to make that connection.

Ultimately, whatever the players and pundits say, the changes will be made. Even if Goodell is scapegoated and driven out of the commissioner position as too heavy-handed, the next guy to come in will make them. There's too much money at stake if the players file a lawsuit for them not to make football a safer game. And ultimately, despite what the current crop of sports pundits say, that's a good thing. Perhaps it will be less of a "macho" pursuit, getting out on the gridiron...but it'll also mean that the players at the reunion might not be using two canes to get around.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reviews: Ghosts of India and Shining Darkness

Re-reading the classic New Adventures (alongside my lovely wife, who blogs with me about them here) has had the unfortunate side effect of reminding me just how much of a shadow of their former selves the Doctor Who novels have become since the relaunch of the new TV series. Back when people like Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts wrote for the books, instead of the TV show, we got vibrant and exciting new fiction that felt like it was more than just a line of tie-in books. Great new authors like Kate Orman and Lawrence Miles got their voices heard, the books were aimed for the first time at my generation, and they felt like the future of Doctor Who...because, looking back, they pretty much were. The New Series Adventures don't have that same verve, even if they do occasionally score big wins like Michael Moorcock's first Doctor Who novel.

'Ghosts of India', by Mark Morris, is a pretty good example of what we get now. It's not a bad novel, don't get me wrong. You won't mistake this one for 'The Pit', or even for 'Deep Blue' by the same author. But it's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from a Doctor Who tie-in novel. The Doctor and Insert Companion Here (Donna) go to Insert Significant Time and Place Here (India in 1947, just as they were regaining their independence) and meet Insert Major Historical Figure Here (Ghandi, who's treated as a generic Wise Mentor figure for the most part with absolutely no effort to delve into the man's complex personal history) and fight Insert Alien Menace Here (the Jal Kalath, who manage to be basically an unmemorable collection of syllables that's EVIL!) to stop Insert Horrific Thing Here (evil radiation making people go insane and murderous, which is about as generic a Horrific Thing as you can get.) It's sort of a cross between a novel and a Doctor Who Mad Libs. Nothing to get upset about, nothing to get excited about, just something to while away a couple of hours reading and then put on the shelf.

But on the other hand, there are still embers of the old books flickering about if you have the patience to read through them all. Mark Michalowski, who was something of a latecomer to the old BBC line but who proved his writing chops pretty clearly, still has the enthusiasm to write something worth reading. 'Shining Darkness' mostly eschews continuity references to produce a funny, romping twist on the old "quest" story. It's still a book pitched considerably younger than, say, 'The Man In the Velvet Mask' (no companions getting STDs, you don't have to know who the Marquis de Sade was), but it's got some clever and witty sequences, the Doctor and Donna come off the page well, and there are enough red herrings floating about that the final plot twist actually caught me off-guard. It's definitely a nice reminder of how even though the new series has eclipsed the books almost completely, you can still find a few treasures in the dark.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Suggestion for the Next Star Trek Series

Obviously, the current regime over at Paramount has decided that the foreseeable future for the Star Trek franchise is in the form of new movies. And frankly, as long as the movies look as good as 'Star Trek Into Darkness', I will be interested no matter how silly the names get. (Future films will no doubt have names like 'Star Trek Up the Khyber', 'Star Trek Screaming', and 'Star Trek At Your Convenience'.) (Trust me, there are people laughing right now, even if you're not one of them.)

But eventually, I'm sure that the Star Trek of my teen/young adult years will develop its own nostalgia, and we'll see a return to the small screen, and a return to the Federation of the 24th century. When that happens, there's something I'd like to see addressed, and it comes out of the problem of Wesley Crusher.

Because there is a problem with Wesley Crusher, and it's got nothing to do with him being a science nerd or him being uncomfortably similar to the show's target audience (oh, come on, you knew most of the Wesley-hate was thinly-disguised self-loathing, even then.) The problem is that Wesley is a civilian, and even as the son of the Chief Medical Officer, there's really no good way for him to interact with the bridge crew without it seeming like authorial fiat. This, in turn, exacerbates the Mary Sue feeling the character has, as he's an ordinary civilian who's somehow always able to wander onto the bridge and take a seat at Comms whenever he wants to. Wesley really needs to be interacting with other civilians, and be given something to do as a normal teenager on board a starship.

Which, on thinking about it, opens up all sorts of possibilities. Because while it was mentioned from time to time in passing that the Enterprise had a civilian population, nothing was ever really done with that. What were they there for? After all, it's not generally like we slap a civilian population onto a battleship. The Enterprise was a vessel that saw combat; why did it have civilians? What purpose did they serve? Then there's the next big question: Who did they answer to? After all, if they answered to Picard, then they weren't really civilians. If the only authority on the ship was a military authority, then they're under military jurisdiction. The specific mention of them as "civilians", the careful distinction of their roles, implies a civilian authority. We're told that the Enterprise is the size of a city; is there a Mayor of the Enterprise?  Or, for that matter, a Burgomeister, a Prefect, a Sindaco, or a ChoCho? Does Picard meet personally with the Mayor, or is there a Civilian Liason Officer? Are there conflicts? (If nothing else, there's bound to be a conflict over the fact that there's a cityful of people on board and only one bar.)

To me, this feels like a whole area that never got explored, one which could prove potentially interesting indeed. If nothing else, it would give Wesley something to do until he became an Ensign.

Monday, December 03, 2012

It's Stockholm Syndrome, But It's a Better Rhyme Scheme

My friends have all heard this ad nauseum, but...every time I hear the song 'Stacy's Mom', or even every time it gets stuck in my head like the earworm it is, I get frustrated anew. Because "Mom" does not rhyme with "on". They have different consonant sounds. For that matter, "wrong" does not rhyme with "Mom" either. Every time I hear the song, it grates on my inner ear like biting down on tinfoil. As such, I have decided to correct the lyrics of the song. It may be a somewhat different story, but at least the rhymes work.

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb

Stacy knows I came over after school? (after school)
Just to hang around by the pool (hang by the pool)
But her mom got back from her 'business trip'? (business trip)
She had plans to set a bomb off, give the cops the slip? (give 'em the slip)

I freaked a bit at first but then it kind of grew on me
Dying's kind of hot, baby can't you see

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
But I don't mind, I feel a certain calm
Stacy, can't you see you're just not the girl for me
She's tied me to a bomb but I'm in love with Stacy's mom

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb

Stacy, do you remember when I mowed your lawn? (mowed your lawn)
Your mom came out with just a towel on (towel on)
I could tell she liked me from the way she stared (the way she stared)
And the way she chloroformed me over there (drugged me over there)

And I know that you think she wants to murder me
But since your dad walked out, your mom could use a guy like me

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
But I don't mind, I feel a certain calm
Stacy, can't you see you're just not the girl for me
She's tied me to a bomb but I'm in love with Stacy's mom

Stacy's mom has tied me to a bomb
But I don't mind, I feel a certain calm
Stacy, can't you see you're just not the girl for me
She's tied me to a bomb but I'm in love with Stacy's mom
(She tied me to a bomb)
I'm in love with (Stacy's mom oh oh)
(Stacys mom oh oh)
I'm in love with Stacy's mom