Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Adams’

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

I’ve just finished catching up with Doctor Who, watching¬†¬†The Curse of the Black Spot and The Doctor’s Wife back to back. The former was depressingly unoriginal: not only did we have to listen to hackneyed, unironic pirate dialogue, but for at least the third time in recent memory, an alien medical program turned out to be responsible for everything. (More of the latter later.)

Now, I didn’t grow up with Doctor Who –¬†¬†the reboot served as my introduction to series. My husband, however, was a childhood fan, and at his recommendation, I’ve watched a large number of Tom Baker episodes as well as the two movies. Setting aside obvious points of comparison like special effects budgets, modern technology and so on, what distinguishes the classic episodes is the fact that the Doctor really does just travel about randomly. He has personal moments, yes, and he inevitably saves the day wherever he ends up, but the scope of these adventures is almost always local – by which I mean, the fate of reality itself does not hang constantly in the balance. So even though I disagree with the rest of his argument, I’m inclined to side with Pete May of the Guardian when he says¬†of the new series:

“The Doctor should be a maverick wanderer, a rebel with a Tardis console, not a superhero. Now every plot seems to centre round the Doctor or his companions as being crucial to the very fabric of the universe.”

It’s a valid criticism, and not just in terms of actual plot content. The one thing I’ve found offputting in the new series is the melodrama: David Tennant’s absurdly long farewell, the regularity with which sidekicks are imperiled, put through the wringer, wangsted and¬†woobied. Look: I love heart-wrenching decisions, tragic endings and emotional baggage as much as the next person. In fact, they’re pretty much my favourite narrative tools! But if you’re going to keep upping the ante week after week, season after season, in such a way that there must Always Be More And Bigger Drama, then in order to ensure that the strings of my heart are tugged rather than hardened, your story must meet three very simple requirements. They are:

1) Internal consistency, because nothing harshes the vibe of an emotional climax quite like the sudden realisation that the plot makes no sense;

2) Good writing, because if all your secondary characters are cardboard cutouts and all the leads are lumbered with cliched¬†dialogue, I will swiftly cease to be in a mood for lovin’; and

3) Humour, because tragedy leavened by laughter is both more powerful and uplifting than the regular kind, and also, paradoxically, sadder.

These should not be impossible things! But as keen readers of this blog may recall, I was not impressed¬†with the start of Season 6, primarily because they failed at hurdle number one. The Curse of the Black Spot was likewise felled by its recycled plot, and took a second stumble in terms of writing. Sufficed to say that, when the time came to watch Neil Gaiman’s episode, provocatively titled The Doctor’s Wife, I was very, very nervous. I like Neil Gaiman. I like Doctor Who. The idea of disliking the effective combination of these two things did not sit well with me – and yet, I was fearful, because while I still love the show, the first three episodes have left me apprehensive about its future.

And then the awesome started.

Because Neil Gaiman, among his many talents, does language. Part of what made The Curse of the Black Spot so very disappointing was the fact that Matt Smith’s dialogue lacked¬†the flair and craziness synonymous with his character. Not only was the Doctor wrong about everything several times, he wasn’t even interestingly wrong. But from the very first moments of The Doctor’s Wife, we have secondary characters whose speech patterns and vocabulary set them apart. We have rapid-fire exchanges and glorious mad oracle ramblings from Idris. Just as importantly for my inner fangirl, we have references to Douglas Adams, author of¬†The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and several episodes of classic Who. Throughout the episode,¬†Gaiman riffs on a memorable dinner conversation between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from¬†The¬†Restaurant¬†at the End of the Universe, and finishes it up by having the Doctor tell House, “Brain the size of a planet, but still so small on the inside!” – a reference to the constant refrain of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Even the villain – a sentient planet – recalls Adams’ classic The Key to Time episode, The Pirate Planet, whose villain captained a moving planet he used to destroy or shrink other worlds.

Yes, we can pick the resolution ahead of time, but it doesn’t actually matter, because let’s face it: you pretty much always know the Doctor will triumph, some sciencey-sounding words will be trotted out to explain whatever has happened, and a slice of the future mystery will be hinted at in passing. Very few episodes of Doctor Who¬†are designed such that the audience is given regular clues and encouraged to solve the mystery before the characters do, primarily because solutions involving alien technology and unknown cultures cannot sensibly be inferred without the use of a plot-spoiling infodump. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try, of course, nor that we’re unable to make narrative leaps based on our knowledge of the kind of show we’re watching¬†rather than sticking solely to what we’re shown. But if you start judging the success of individual episodes based on how little you understood of what actually happened, as seems to be the case with fans of the first three¬†installments, you run the risk letting actual gaffes go through to the keeper just because they didn’t make sense, in the mistaken belief that therefore, somehow, they must do. All of which is a way of saying that, in this instance, being able to pick the ending was a good thing. After so many stories that begged more questions than they answered, it was frankly a relief to encounter an internally consistent episode, one where everything you needed to know – and wanted to know – was provided.

I loved Idris, too: not just the idea of the TARDIS in a human body, but the recognition of the fact that she really is the Doctor’s one true love – his ‘wife’, in the way that all great captains are married to their ships. We’ve heard the TARDIS referred to as a ‘she’ before; we’ve seen the Doctor talk to her – pleading, praising, admonishing, laughing – and watched as the other characters tease him for it. In the last moments when her matrix simultaneously inhabits the ship itself and the dying body of Idris, allowing her to say a first and final hello to the man she stole nearly a thousand years ago, the communion between TARDIS and Doctor is oddly reminiscent of the last episode of Firefly, when River Tam speaks for Serenity, addressing the crew in her voice. It’s a resonant concept: ship as lover, as mother, as friend – a silent, unchanging character, and the vehicle for stories without which there could literally be no vehicle.

When, in the closing scene, Rory asks the Doctor if he has his own bedroom on the TARDIS, he doesn’t answer, because there’s no need: the control room is his, the room of his heart, and that’s where we leave him, communing with a ship he now knows is listening – has always been listening – and who alone of all creatures left in the universe shares his backwards/forwards perception of time. The Doctor’s Wife is a gorgeous, clever, funny, touching episode that embodies everything I’ve come to love about the show. I only hope that the rest of the season lives up to it.

Alright. Let’s lay some cards on the table.

I’m a would-be fantasy novelist.¬†I’ve written¬†2.5 actual books, but none are published, nor are¬†any currently en route to being published. The first of these manuscripts was¬†the end-product of my high school schemes, a 160,000 word,¬†first-volume behemoth. Between the ages of 13 and 18,¬†it went through approximately five different iterations,¬†each¬†new interpretation resulting in the total abandonment of the one before, to the point where you could¬†reasonably add another 100,000-odd words to the total project. That still doesn’t include multiple rewrites, countless hand-written notes, several different maps and all the creative angst and sanity of five years’ effort. The irony was, I changed the plot so many times that by the fourth version, I realised (belatedly) that my original framework had ceased to be viable. I scrapped it all, started again, and finished the final product not long before my 19th birthday. It took that long.

Of course,¬†it’s rubbish. There’s interesting characters, some nice ideas, a few paragraphs I’m not entirely ashamed of, and that’s about it. But it wasn’t a waste of time. From the experience, I learned patience, editing, self-analysis and proved, once and for all, that I was capable of writing an entire book. I edited and submitted, but deep down, I knew it was time to move on: I hadn’t started the sequal, and realistically, I never would.

Enter my mind-numbing stint as a legal secretary, and the oodles of spare time in front of a computer¬†it entailed. In the middle of an exceptionally long day, I started writing a new story, in no small way inspired by a recent spate of Buffy-watching. It grew longer. And longer. A plot arc formed. Characters developed. And all of a sudden, without quite intending to, I’d written a 75,000 word quasi-young-adult fantasy novel, with jokes (or at least, my own would-be version of Douglas Adams/Neil Gaiman¬†comic asidery) and the expectation of two more books to come. I submitted; it was rejected, but kindly, and once with actual praise. I¬†managed to wrangle a literary agent, who sent it to Penguin. I started writing the next volume. The agent closed her agency. I kept writing. The novel made it through the first round of Penguin approvals, but was knocked back at the second. I made final contact with my ex-agent, thanking her for the opportunity, and started a new edit of¬†the first volume.

And that brings us up to date.

Something I find intensely problematic with being a would-be author: there’s lots of us. Some are exceptional, some are average, and some are frankly appalling. As best I can tell, the vast majority of people who get rejected by publishers belong to the latter category: it’s a base assumption, and one most people tend to make. Despite my own views, I might objectively be godawful, or at least mediocre. There’s many styles of writing, after all, and¬†blogging is¬†no guarantee of narrative chutzpah. And there’s always room for improvement.

But what I want – what I really want¬†– is to be a fantasy author. It’s no good pretending otherwise. I can’t vouch for my skills, but I can vouch for my determination. A small, stubborn core of me¬†is devoted to that end. It’s why my name, and not a pseudonym, is on this blog: I want to succeed, and be known¬†in that success. I don’t want vast riches, or to be the next J. K¬†Rowling: were that the case, my naievete would be frightening. What I dream about – the dream of dreams – is meeting the writers I love, as a published author.

In the aftermath of Comicon, the longing hits me powerfully, and twists. Over at DeepGenre, Kevin Andrew Murphy pens a writeup that makes me ebb and wrench with jealousy:¬†Scott Kurtz at PvP and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, aka Tycho, aren’t helping, either. Clearly, there’s some issues here on my part, but I just want to be there, you know?¬†The fact that I live on a different continent is just another reason to succeed.

I’d¬†planned not to write here about trying to get published. Let’s face it: the blogsphere is a fantastic (ha!) outlet for angst, and while I’m as fond of ranting as the next person, I don’t want to whine at each and every hurdle. (Not much, anyway.) I’ll try to be good. I won’t let it hog the spotlight. But that’s where I’m coming from, and – with a bit of effort – where I’m going.

Keen observers of this blog may have noticed my penchant for quoting that Douglas Adams masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in reference to real-world events. Today, I will take the time-honoured sentiment that¬†‘truth is stranger than¬†fiction’ and amend it ever so. Because sometimes, truth is exactly as strange as fiction.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a ship from Golgafrincham – containing an entire useless third of that planet’s population – crash lands on prehistoric Earth. Being composed of morons, the crew adopts the leaf as currency, but as mass availability means that three major deciduous forests purchase one ship’s biscuit, they take steps to combat inflation. Bold, visionary steps, viz: burning down all the forests.

Fast forward to Zimbabwe and today’s news: the paper company on which Robert Mugabe has been printing his ever-rising currency denominations has severed its ties to the government. Which means, in practical terms, that¬†in addition to being worthless – the largest note is $50 billion, with a street value of one American dollar – the money will now be scarce.¬†So scarce, in fact, that within two weeks, printing more¬†will be impossible. Mugabe won’t be able to pay his thugs. In all probability, the country will collapse. And Fidelity Printers, whose¬†principled withdrawal over the recent election has precipitated the crisis, will effectively become the first corporation to deliberately and visibly destroy a government. ¬†¬†¬†

It’s almost on par with Morgan Robertson’s 1898¬†novella Futility, or Wreck of the Titan – published fourteen years prior to the sinking of the Titanic – in which the world’s largest, unsinkable ocean liner hits an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic. Seriously.

Which, on many levels, is just plain weird –¬†but arguably no weirder than a beer¬†that costs¬†$150 billion and isn’t brewed from unicorn giggles.

Truth and fiction? Let’s blur dem lines.

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable.

“There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

So quoth the immortal Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (original radio series, you novel-toutin’ apologists) – but I’m rapidly becoming of¬†the view that if a¬†spry mad-libber were to¬†replace the word ‘universe’ in the preceding paragraph with ‘NSW State Labor Party’, they wouldn’t be far wrong. ¬†¬†

Behold: John Watkins, NSW State Transport Minister, has stated his readiness to use WorkChoices to – wait for it – stop union action. He’s not unaware of the irony. And he doesn’t care.

It’s like the Damnation of Ruddock come to life, only instead of a besuited¬†Nick Slick Minchin pulling the strings, it’s the ghostly hand of Howard, dripping with¬†vile ectoplasm as it¬†emerges from the cooling¬†ashes of an unholy pyre. Morris Iemma has always resembled nothing so much as the failed punchline¬†of a bad joke, but in light of Belinda Neal and John Della-Bosca – not to mention the¬†repulsive¬†Milton Orkopoulos¬†– he’s started looking more and more like a real-world¬†Cornelius Fudge.

I never thought I’d say this. Lordy, how I wish things could be otherwise, but right now, I’m really left with only one alternative. The NSW State Labor party will lose the next election, if there’s any justice in the world. The Liberals will get in.

And from the safety of Melbourne, I will smile.