See also "The Complete Angler" by Donavan Hall (@theangler)

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Rediscovered Country

I just finished reading the Target novelization of The Aztecs and will be writing about that story at length soon.  My project is to read these novelizations in order since one of ideas behind this blog is to examine Doctor Who as an unfolding, developing (self-editing) text.  However, I see some merit in jumping around, of dipping in and out of the Doctor Who storyline at places which interest me.  Actually, this is what I’m doing as a viewer.  I jump around.  Last week, I watched “The Trial of a Time Lord” and then after that I watched “The Face of Evil” because I felt like it.  Watching the series this way is pure pleasure.

Reading the novelizations in order is also a pleasure, but I am tempted to jump ahead and read the way I watch.  For example, I’ve never read the novelization of “Ghost Light.”  I ordered the paperback and it’s sitting on my “to read” pile.  Will I have to wait until I’ve read the 160+ stories that came before it?  No one is forcing me to read these texts in order after all.

Another project which (in a way) inspired my own is The Black Archive series.  I ordered the first five volumes of that series and read the first one, Rose by Jon Arnold, while I was reading the novelization of “An Unearthly Child.”  The Black Archive is not following the order in which the TV series presented the stories.  The editor of the series has another agenda for making his commissions.  I don’t know what that agenda is, but it’s not a compulsion to slavishly follow the show’s broadcast order.

My decision to read the novelizations in order seemed like a good idea at first.  Reading from the beginning has led to my wanting to rush through these first few stories so that I can get to ones which are less familiar.  (I’ve watched “The Daleks” and “The Aztecs” so many times now that reading the novelizations feels a little like ticking the box.  Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading them.  What excited me most about these novelizations of the early stories was how they differed from the TV version.) Now, I’m ready to start reading The Sensorites.  I’ve only ever seen that serial once, and that was more than ten years ago.  So getting to The Sensorites is like arriving at the border of a New World.  I’m looking forward to rediscovering these less familiar episodes in the narrative history of Doctor Who and especially reading the novelizations of the missing stories.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Basic Story Shape

Recently, Alison Flood wrote about story shape for The Guardian.  The article is called “Three, six or 36: how many basic plots are there in all stories ever written?”  Here are the six plot structures identified by the University of Vermont researchers Flood wrote about in her article:

  1. rags to riches (rise), or comedy, in the classical sense
  2. riches to rags (fall), or tragedy
  3. man in a hole (fall-rise)
  4. Icarus (rise-fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise-fall-rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall-rise-fall)

Let’s see if this set of categories applies to a few Doctor Who stories.  We can start with “An Unearthly Child” since it’s the first novelization and the one I began with when I started this project.

The first episode of “An Unearthly Child” poses a mystery, or set of mysteries associated with Susan and her cranky grandfather, the Doctor.  These mysteries pull Ian and Barbara into the story.  The TARDIS itself becomes a trap for Ian and Barbara with the Doctor (effectively) kidnapping them.  With this set up, Ian and Barbara’s entire story arc becomes a quest to get back to London 1963.  This is the “man in a hole” shape.  They are in a situation which they are trying to get out of.

Landing in 100,000 B.C. is the first major hole.  The TARDIS team wanders around until they are captured by cavemen and imprisoned in the Cave of Skulls.  Again, they are in a hole and have to get out.  The socio-political struggle within the tribe itself is just another form of hole.  Ian and the Doctor have to make fire for the cavemen in order to get out of that particular hole.

In this serial the formula of capture-escape is set and continued on through the next serial, “The Daleks” by Terry Nation.  Again, the TARDIS team lands in a strange place which quickly becomes a trap.  The story moves along, trapping the characters in different ways and forcing them to find ingenious ways to get out of the holes they find themselves in.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Holiday Drama

I’ve been on vacation this week — an activity which is given over to wandering through space, in almost constant movement.  Consequently, I haven’t had time to sit in one place and to read.  But yesterday, I did take a few moments at the end of the day (before nodding off) to watch the first episode of “Terror of the Vervoids” by Pip and Jane Baker, the third story in “The Trial of a Time Lord” (Season 23).  Erik and Kyle discussed the work of Pip and Jane Baker for Doctor Who on the most recent episode of Doctor Who: The Writers’ Room.  Kyle made the point that Pip and Jane Baker’s stories have been “unfairly maligned” by fans and that “Terror of the Vervoids” (minus the courtroom scenes) is a decent story.

It’s been many years since I’ve watched “Terror of the Vervoids” (~20 years?) so this viewing is essentially a fresh one for me.  So far I agree with Erik and Kyle — the story has opened with a number of mysterious goings on and characters which interested me.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the story plays out.

After watching the first episode of “Terror of the Vervoids,” I put on the short featurette on the aborted Season 23, the “Lost Season.”  Having grown-up in the US watching Doctor Who on PBS, I was used to waiting for years for new Doctor Who stories to watch.  So the break between Season 22 and 23 didn’t seem unusual, but I was aware of the hiatus, reading about it in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine.  I wrote in my diary at the time what I really thought of Michael Grade — he was right up there with Davros on my list of ultimate foes.  

To pass the time, the gap year of 1986, I began writing a new notebook, a supplement to my diary.  This new notebook would contain my sketches for the stories which would fill the gap between Season 22 and Season 23.  At the time I had no knowledge whatsoever of the actual lost stories originally planned for Season 23 and the novelizations were still a few years in the future (they would appear in 1989).  I was a teenager and it seemed that I endless hours of free time.  What better way to while away the hours than by filling my Doctor Who notebook with outlines and summaries of an imagined Season 22½?

I won’t bore you with recapitulating those early attempts at storytelling, but I will say that the first story in the run of 33 episodes that I sketched out for my own lost season was a proper holiday for the Doctor and Peri.  When I dug out my Season 22½ notebook recently from deep storage, I remembered that I was intent on setting my first story at some kind of swanky resort.  Why?  The featurette on the Lost Season 23 reminded me.  At the end of “Revelation of the Daleks” the Doctor promises to take Peri some place fun.  Their next stop would have been (was?) Blackpool in The Nightmare Fair by Graham Williams.

The problem that I encountered when (in 1987) I was trying to write what amounts to my first attempt at fanfiction was that something dramatic needed to happen in my story.  I couldn’t just send the Doctor and Peri to a swanky resort and write about how much sleep they got and how nice the pool was.  My solution was to transform the manager of the resort into a villain who had created this pleasure palace for the purpose of trapping the Doctor.  Basically, in terms of story shape, the Doctor lands in a hole and has to get out.

We will see as we go through each of the stories in Doctor Who, reading the novelizations, and comparing them with the broadcast version, several variations of the same basic story shape.  One of the most common in Doctor Who is the “man in a hole” shape which see the Doctor land in some trouble in the first chapter and then he spends the next dozen chapters trying to dig himself out of the hole.

Next time, we’ll look at the six story types and their shapes.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Who’s (Whose?) Unfolding Text?

Going through the entirety of (classic) Doctor Who by reading the Target (plus) novelizations might seem a peculiar ambition, even quixotic.  After all, Doctor Who is a television show and so what is shown on the screen is the definitive version of the text, or is it?

In a recent episode of Radio Free Skaro (I believe) there was some discussion of how Doctor Who is edited for various broadcast outlets.  Of course, the most obvious editing of episodes comes when commercial breaks are inserted, but the editing goes beyond that.  But in some places and in some outlets whole scenes are deleted.  One of the ladies on Verity noted that the broadcast version of one episode of Doctor Who was different than the one she viewed on iTunes.  (I’m sorry, I don’t remember which specific episode it was.)  The point here is that even the version of Doctor Who that appears on screen is subject to variations.

However, when it comes to the novelizations, we will encounter some versions of stories which differ so much from their broadcast version that they might as well be considered a different story altogether.  The Massacre by John Lucarotti is one such example.

The interest for me in reading Doctor Who (here I’m just speaking as a fan and not as a writer) is the chance of encountering alternate or expanded versions of the stories I know from television.  Some fans might feel that the version in the novelization is somehow inferior to the televised (privileged or authorized) version.  I’m not interested in debates on which text is the authoritative text.  For the purposes of this reading I’ll treat all alternate versions (even fan-created versions) of these stories on an equal footing.

When I initially conceived of this project, I was just thinking of reading the Target novelizations of the televised stories.  However, now that I’ve spent more time thinking about Doctor Who as an unfolding text, I don’t see why the scope of the project shouldn’t include the New Adventures (Virgin), the Missing Adventures, and the Eighth Doctor Adventures.  In fact, why not include all the comic strips and the Big Finish audios?  Practicality intervenes here.  I don’t think that I’ll be able to read my way through fifty-plus years of generated texts — the universe of Doctor Who has grown too large.

So for now, I’ll begin with the novelizations of the classic Doctor Who stories and then when that’s done, we’ll see whether I’m up for tackling the New Adventures.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Once in a lifetime (at least)

Earlier this year I listened to a podcast interview (Doctor Who: The Writers’ Room) with writer Paul Cornell and he mentioned that he had at one point gone back to the beginning of the Doctor Who and watched all the existing episodes in order up to the present.  Then he said, “It’s a slow march that every true Doctor Who fan has to do at least once in their lifetime.”

What Paul Cornell said planted the seed of an idea for a project in my brain.  Why not spend this gap year (2016) traveling with the Doctor on all his adventures from the very beginning?  But, being a literary type and a reader, I thought why not read all of Doctor Who from the beginning.  After all I have all the Target novelizations and several others that fill the gaps in that range.  I could read every single Doctor Who story (in order) including all the missing episodes since novelizations of the missing stories exist.

Once I began (re)reading the Doctor Who novelizations (for the first time in twenty-five years), I thought it might be fun to keep a record, a public diary of my journey through the entire written history of Doctor Who.  But this diary had to be more than just thoughts, observations, reactions, and reviews of the novelizations, there should be more to my commentary than that if it was to interest other people.  What if I approached this reading project as a proper study of the writing process?  After all, these were the stories which inspired me to become a writer in the first place.  Why did these stories appeal to me?  Why did they so stimulate my imagination?  How had they informed my understanding of what a proper story was?

Even though I’ve been writing for years and have written a stack of books, I’d never actually done a systematic study of how to plot or structure a story.  Mostly, I’ve written by instinct, going with what feels right.  While this artistic approach has worked, it couldn’t hurt to conduct a self-study course on the analytic approach, on how to write, using Doctor Who as a primary text.

In the coming weeks (years? it’s more than 160 books after all) my plan is not only to keep a record of Doctor Who’s unfolding text, but to make use of this diverse body of work as a source for developing an understanding of what makes a story good, engaging, and compelling.  Of course, many of the stories in Doctor Who do not work.  Rather than being a drawback, the fact that this body of text contains flawed works provides the student writer with examples of what not to do.  I read somewhere that Roberto BolaƱo enjoyed reading flawed works because it provided him an opportunity to see narrative problems and to pose solutions.  The student who only studies the great works does not have the opportunity to see how to improve a work.  So along the way, as I (we?) develop a theory of story based on Doctor Who, I’ll be providing some alternate versions of certain stories, versions which correct the flaws in the originals.