Sunday, November 22, 2015

Long Live Doctor Who!

You know how that goes.

The King is dead. Long live the King.
Doctor Who is, of course, not dead. Nor is it a king. It used to be king among my favourite TV series. But the show has died a little for me. Even at this point I can’t say with 100% certainty that I will be giving up on it, because divorce is never easy when you’ve been married to something for so bloody long. But unless there’s something pretty phenomenal between the next two episodes and the Christmas special (inclusive) I foresee a trial separation at least.
Many folks have told me – so it must be true – that the series isn’t made for me any more. Why? Because I’m too old? Most of the folks telling me this are of a similar age i.e. grown-up kid to adult. And I’m more the former. So colour me confused. If a show called Doctor Who isn’t being made for people who’ve loved Doctor Who all their life then what’s it doing wearing that title?

Even at its previous lowest ebb (for me, that’d be the first season of McCoy – for you, likely, some other period) as much as I cringed at every episode, I never considered taking a break from it.

Heck, I remember one time back in the Graham Williams era being told by my parents, no, I couldn’t go watch The Horns Of Nimon, I had to stay at the dinner table to enjoy tea with my visiting grandparents. The grandmother in this scenario was the spitting image of Davros, but like worse, because the Doctor would never tell you to give Davros a kiss when he was leaving. Ugh. Anyway, I would much rather have rushed to the living room to see what was going on with the guy in the bull’s head in the gold lamé six-inch platforms. In short, I was upset at missing the first ever Doctor Who episode I ever missed. (There was no VHS, no catch-up TV, BBC iPlayer in those days, younglings. If you missed it, it was gone.) Even though I was old enough to recognise that the show had suffered a ‘bit of a dip in quality’.

Now, in its current incarnation, if not for the old-habits-die-hard ingrained attachment, I would gladly be shot of it from my viewing schedule. And it’s about more than just my THAWs (Ten Hates About Who).

I think Hans Christian Andersen or Danny Kaye summed it up best.

There once was an Ugly Duckling, one of those guys said.

Feathers all stubby and brown, the poor little bugger was shunned, ridiculed and generally told to get out of town. Quack quack. Then after a bit of an absence it returned and everyone said how it was, quack-quack, the best thing in town and when it examined its own reflection it thought, hell yeah, I am amazing, BRILLIANT, FANTASTIC! Basically convinced of its own perfection. Beautiful plumage.

Now there’s a fable applicable to Doctor Who.

Mocked by many, not very much wanted by the BBC, it went away for a bit and returned as a glorious, upside-down swan. Probably a thing of beauty and elegance underneath, but to be honest it’s a struggle to see with all the frenetic paddling going on above the surface.

Hardly an episode goes by without quantities of frantic hand-waving and leg-thrashing like an attention-starved child shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!” Perhaps a side-effect of its tendency to overdose on artificial sweeteners. Or is it born of some old, deep-seated insecurities, a leftover from those old days when it was something of a joke to many? Oh no, people might not watch if we don’t do something big and flash that has nothing to do with tonight’s story or at the very least keep talking really fast and inject lots of wit every line absolutely has to be witty because otherwise people will lose interest and anyway if we move things along fast enough nobody will notice that it’s full of holes. Whatever the cause, it’s tiring.

Where old Who used to pad out its 100-minutes-or-more tales with running up and down corridors, now they pad out their 45-minute time-slots with big dumb grandstanding and verbal diarrhoea. Everyone talks like Duracell bunnies on speed and on the rare occasions they don’t (eg. The Woman Who Lived) the episode is declared by many to be dull.

But old-new comparisons aren’t the crux of the problem.

The ‘problem’, if I can call it that, is that there are too many other shows – contemporaries or close contemporaries anyway – that I much prefer. That’s why I use the word ‘problem’ loosely. This is not a glass half empty situation. Far from it. This is a glass brimming over with great stuff.  At this point I’m just finding room for Doctor Who out of habit but it’s not a favourite tipple. It has slipped steadily further down my Top 10 list, to the extent that it’s probably now somewhere outside my Top 30. Haven’t calculated an exact chart position, sorry, but suffice to say it’s just not a priority.

There are many greater shows out there that I love much much more.

There, I said it.

Doctor Who is still the show with the greatest potential, I believe. And that’s another problem. Because it means it’s falling so far short of everything it could be. Actually, all too often it’s less a show, more of a tell. It’s constantly telling us stuff. E.g. “They’re one of the most feared races in the galaxy.” Which would be bad enough, but then it proceeds to show us evidence to the contrary. See also “This is brilliant!”, “Fantastic!”, “Genius!” Assuring us something is clever when it’s not. It’s like the worst stage-magician ever. Stuffing cards up his sleeves in plain sight and proclaiming it magic.

It seems to me that at some point writers are sitting back from their scripts and saying to themselves, “That’ll do, pig.” Or “Good enough.” And hitting save and send. Basically, it’s either that or smart, intelligent people are failing to spot glaring errors and weaknesses and declaring the works fit for production. This leaves many stories with a half-finished feel or material of some merit embedded in the flimsiest of plots. (eg, again, The Woman Who Lived.) Where ‘good enough’ or ‘that’ll do’ has to be the final assessment. Or worse, I imagine, “Oh wow, that’s BRILLIANT!” (pig).

Maybe I watch the wrong kind of telly, but there’s no other show I can think of that leaves me with the impression of any similar attitudes going on behind the scenes. And if the failings don’t bother you, if you’re one of the many who still believe it’s all great, all power to you and hats off to you. I’d just add that the show can be all the things you find great about it and So. Much. Better.

For the most part, (apart from the THAWs!) I’m advocating that stuff be added, not taken away. It’s not going to change, because those in the driving seat are happy with the status quo. Playing the same three chords.

Recently, I was asked to write a Doctor Who short story. My first Who-related work in a Time Lord’s age. And although I never once paused to consider passing up the opportunity, when it came to writing the tale I experienced something very unusual. A large hole where my enthusiasm used to be. It was (temporarily) horrible.

Naturally, I overcame it. Hell, I’ve written Merlin novelisations. I have a strong track record in overcoming lack of enthusiasm. But it troubled me that it was there at all. For Doctor Who! Unheard of. As it turned out, it was huge fun to write, had a blast in the space of a few thousand words. Yay!

It was that little speed-bump, or sleeping police box, that made me think I needed to do something to restore my enthusiasm, to remind myself of all the things I loved about Who. Which brings me – finally, hurrah – to the point and why this post bears the title it does.

Tomorrow is November 23rd. Doctor Who’s 52nd birthday.

And I can’t think of a better time to begin a classic Who rewatchathon. Starting with an Unearthly Child onwards.

This decision alone confirms me as still a fan.

It’s sad, I know, but it’s also great.

Some of it will by necessity be a listenathon, because the BBC in its infinite wisdom burned a lot of episodes instead of all those Jim’ll Fix Its in their archives. Hindsight, wonderful thing. But I hope to re-experience every story in whatever medium available.

I’ll probably do something like post mini-reviews on Facebook, because it’s fun to share this sort of journey. No need to wish me bon voyage.

Some of it will be patchy. There will be potholes and plotholes along the road. There will be Blue Peter here’s one I made earlier fx. There will be overacting. There will be underacting. There will sometimes be no acting at all. There will be bulls in six-inch gold lamé platform heels.

My mission: to find something to love in all of it.

Long live the Ugly Duckling!

SAF 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Black Dog Down - October

When I look back over October, I have to acknowledge a simple truth: I’ve not achieved half my goals for this month.

And then I recognise a subtler, underlying truth: I’m okay with that.

This is significant progress for someone who has spent most of his adult existence measuring self-worth and even the value in life in terms of how much he’s achieved within any given timeframe. All too often, the answer was ‘not a whole lot’ – or so it seemed to me – and if that’s your main gauge on life and yourself, well, the results are always going to be detrimental to your health.

This change is not a seismic shift, but it’s pretty big.

So, what happened?

Well, you’d assume not very much if I didn’t achieve half my goals. And I have to fess up to slacking a little. Certainly my discipline lapsed for a fortnight or more with respect to household chores and maintaining a clutter-free environment. Not sure why I let that slide, but I did and I’m not proud of that because that was going well. Energy levels have been a factor, with insomnia and consequent fatigue at record highs. 

Alcohol consumption is also up, which – although  it has tended to feel pretty good at the time of drinking – is probably not helping. But, hey, at least some of the drinking was social and the evenings can get lonely without a bottle.

(Note: this is not a guide on how to tackle depression. This is only how I’m tackling it and, as often as not, failing. Follow my example at your peril.)

Still, even if alcohol is a poor choice of fuel I’ve been getting decent mileage per gallon. Because while my checklist of goals achieved looks as thin as a Tory promise I have been busy. I just happened to have achieved some things that weren’t on my list of goals at the start of the month.

It’s good to have alternatives and a fair degree of flexibility to go with the discipline.
One of my original October goals I did complete was a short story, which I can’t tell you much about, but while I overran my initial estimated delivery time by a few days the finished story was that much better for those extra days. It was a real treat to work on and simply having that project was a major morale boost. And if I can’t take the credit for the opportunity – it came out of the blue via a social media contact – I can take the credit for the story.

Not one for self-congratulatory pats on the back as a rule, but sometimes you just have to give yourself a thumbs up and say, I did that. Even if it is a relatively small thing, they can be huge in your personal scheme.

This month has also seen some developments and forward movement on two other projects and there’s no denying that a few doses of good news can go a long way. Certainly it’s better fuel than the alcohol. Externally sourced boosts are no cure for depression, but they have their medicinal effects. As important as it is not to depend on them, it’s vital to recognise and appreciate them when they do come your way. More than that – embrace them.

Again, one of these arose serendipitously out of a social media contact and I can’t claim any credit for that, beyond being a sociable and affable and highly approachable individual, natch. The other though, stemmed from me and an approach I ventured some time ago. When the opportunity presents itself you still have to have the courage to say yes. And again, dispense with the modesty for a bit and say, I did that. I made that happen.

On the surface that seems like I’m still measuring the month by what I achieved, but there’s more to the picture than that.

Shit happens, as we know, and October wasn’t like shit’s month off or anything. I got hit with frustrations, annoyances, anxieties and all the usual depression triggers. The sprinklings of good news served as armour and although the slings and arrows of RLC (real-life crap) still stung and still knocked me down, their effects were shorter-lived than usual.

Previously, if a bad thing happened, my brain ruled that it was a bad day. I think, with a little cushioning from the positives, I was able to gain a little distance and a healthier perspective. Not yet ready to rise up against a sea of troubles – what with the insomnia, it’s a miracle I rise up at all in the mornings. But I’m adjusting to the idea that external factors, those outside of my control, need not ruin – or even make (if it’s some good shit coming at me) – my day.

The lesson here is that I can make – or ruin – my day.

So, gradually, as the month has gone on, I’ve worked to apply that lesson.

Trivial little things, such as the social media activity I’ve mentioned before. This month, daily posts about Doctor Who, which have often invited great diversity of opinion and sparked lively fun discussions. Yay for that. Also ensuring there’s a treat or two in the month, treats that aren’t actually dependent on anything I’ve achieved. A reward system is all well and good, but there’s no harm in the occasional reward just because.

The downside, of course, is a looming financial crisis, but hopefully I can stave that off by generating some more work for myself. For example, I’m taking the step of offering my services as an editor for authors. It may not resolve the deficit, but for right now it’s enough that I’m taking that step. A little boldness in that direction may translate to boldness in other areas. Quite a difference from August, say, where I’d sunk to a horrible place of wondering what the fuck was the point of it all. Today, I know that the point is me.

At the risk of going all L’Oreal on yo ass, I’m worth it.

In another bold step, I’ve decided to start phasing out the medication. This will likely be the process of a month or more and I sense a degree of trepidation as I type that, but it’s a case of feel the fear and do it anyway. The idea  is to shift the emphasis from supportive chemicals to what I can do for myself. And I think that’s key and the timing’s right.

My head is full of plans for the months ahead, as well as a few treats in the social/entertainment calendar, and it’s great to have that motivation and focus and, quite simply, ‘stuff to look forward to’ – but one truth I want to hold onto is that my November will not be dependent on any of that. I’m sure a lot of it will help but it should not determine the success or worth of those 30 days.

That will be down to me.


Sure. But it’s Halloween. A bit of scary is good.

Happy Halloween, folks.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Black Dog Down - September

There have been a lot of tears this month.

Why, only last week I cried my eyes out with laughter at the notion that the Prime Minister of our great nation might have had sexual congress with a pig. And I never even knew we had a congress in our government. Makes my troubles with a Black Dog positively humdrum.

On a more serious note and one perhaps more liable to have a longer term remedial effect, I’ve found myself politically motivated , not to say inspired, by the resounding success of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Leadership election. Why should this have any effect on my mental health?

Well, as much as you have to acknowledge external detrimental effects you certainly have to recognise and welcome the external positives. Anything that comes along. This, for me, is significant because it sparks a bit of hope in an arena where I had definitely given up. That is, politics.

A guy wanting to put social conscience at the forefront of the parliamentary agenda? Hell, yes.

And yes, I appreciate it all may come to nothing by 2020 because the press assures me such a man is unelectable as Prime Minister. Whereas a varnish-faced swineporker is eminent PM material. But the possibility that a thing may never happen is not a sound case against supporting it. Peter Dinklage may never be Doctor Who, but I’m rooting for him a hundred percent because I know he would be *awesome*. Corbyn would likely not be as awesome as PM because he’d probably be hamstrung by the greed and self-interest of others, limited in the actual good he could achieve in the same way Obama would love to introduce stricter gun controls in the US but, you know, the most powerful leader in the Western world isn’t as influential as a lot of righteous gundamentalists who enjoy a lot of bucks with their bangs.

Anyway, bottom line is, this represents potential for change. And that’s a bus worth boarding. It’s fired some much-needed motivation on a front very much beyond the personal, which is helpful in encouraging me to step outside of my own head for a while and a counter-current to all the wider-world stuff that is all too often a threat to mental health – by which, of course, I mean all that depressing shit on the news.

Measuring the month of September on a more personal scale, it’s true that I’ve not achieved half the goals I had in mind at the outset, but there has been significant movement in spite of some choresome domestic trials that did their best to interfere with my carefully planned schedule.

As with August, I’ve continued to mix a daily dose of social media activity with my work and it’s continued to prove effective in fuelling creativity, as well as simply providing for entertaining and interesting discussions. Just recently we’ve begun a daily diet of Doctor Who talk and that’s always guaranteed to invite diverse opinions, which is great. Stimulates the brain cells and often fuels smiles, laughs and general inspiration throughout the day. It’s like breakfast. A bowl of muse-li, say.

Everything the solitary life of a writer needs. Except the hugs. He could always use more hugs.

Amid all the fun and larks, I think it’s fair to say I’ve been building on the daily routines I’ve developed over the past few months. Adding to the framework. It involves a very disciplined pattern to each day, which doesn’t always hold together, but I’m learning to include a little flexibility. It’s a tricky balance to strike – military-level discipline with permission to go AWOL at any time. Actually, it’s not AWOL if it’s permitted, so you can see I’m still some way from getting the balance right.

There are still two projects outside of my ongoing goals that have moved closer to reality and all of this structuring of my daily and weekly timetable should prove beneficial when it comes to incorporating work on either (or both) of those as and when the need arises.

Leisure time, if anything, is where I’ve encountered my toughest hurdles. Awarding myself an evening off and not knowing what the hell to do with the hours. I mean, I’m not short of entertainment to enjoy, but there have been lonely evenings when the Black Dog has crept in and done its enthusiasm-sapping thing, leeching pleasure from even things I love and leaving them all a bit hollow.

Simplest of cases in point, treated myself to a few biscuits one evening. Ate just three, did not even notice I’d eaten them. Had another three. Another night I ended up munching through a third of a packet of choc digestives. In similar fashion, I went through a bottle of vino without really tasting it. Not healthy. And I’m not talking about the path to obesity or alcohol damage to my liver. It’s more the mental side, taking the time to enjoy the things you enjoy. A treat is not a treat if you go through it in a stupour.

On those evenings, my choice of movie might not penetrate further than the surface of the eyes.

With that in mind, looking ahead to next month, I will have to take care to pay as much attention to rest and play as I have done to the work schedule.

Sometimes work *is* play and I’m happy to say I had at least one day this month when I dashed off a spot of writing and sat back, done, feeling immediately satisfied with what I’d written. Also, for half the month I’d pressed ahead with the creative exercises I’d been doing with friends and that, despite producing some questionable creative results, was generally helpful as before. Looking forward to the next phase of that.

Financially, I am running a deficit, so some paid work would probably be as beneficial as some hugs at this stage, but key parts of that (excessive?) expenditure have centred on lining up treats and trips for myself. Concerts, theatre, cinema outings, whatever. Sometimes you can’t afford not to allow yourself the things you can’t afford.

But to conclude on a positive note, I’m not a drowning man clutching at straws, I’m just clutching at straws because I’d rather fancy a slurp of a long cool drink or several. And I’m not talking about wine – wine with straws would be so gauche. Just some of life’s metaphorical drinks that keep you supplied with that glass half-full feeling.

Like I said on Twitter the other day. If life gives you demons, make demonade.

Now all I have to do is formulate the recipe.

SAF 2015

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Welcome, my friend, to the show that never ends. Except for a lengthy absence from our screens from 1989 to 2005, with a less than satisfactory TV movie in between. And a break in 1985 when the BBC didn’t know if it wanted the series cluttering up its bland light entertainment schedules any more. And next year when it’ll only be half a season because the showrunner is just too darned busy.

Yes, folks, Doctor Who returns to our screens.

My own enthusiasm for the show has been dampened, it’s true, as though it’s spent a year with Bear Grylls in the Delta Magna swamps. But while the relationship may be tired, I still love the dear old thing, damnit. (Luckily I’m restoring my love of the show with revisits of old stories and, hopefully, a couple of projects that have come my way. Hurrah!) And I will doubtless be watching every week.

After all, Peter Capaldi is the best Doctor since Tom Baker and that, right there, is something to enthuse about even before the season’s kicked off.

What I won’t be doing is posting episode reviews. Like Mr Moffat, I'm just too darned busy. And I’m just not sure it’s worth investing more time and energy in dashing off a review than the writers put into plotting their stories. When there’s more holes than cheese, there’s little left to comment on. More crucially, I would probably end up repeating the same things. Because the show repeats the same things like it’s trapped in its own creative chronic hysteresis.

Last year I cited my ‘Top 10’ of those repeat offences under the title Ten Things I Hate About Who. Hate, as I stated at the time, was too strong a word but these are things that, for me, every time they recur, provoke despairing sighs to rival those of Hong Kong Phooey’s very own Spot the Cat. They’re things that would need correcting (and/or eliminating altogether from the format) to restore my passion for the series.

It wouldn’t take very much work at all for a decent script doctor to remedy all ten, but in the absence of any apparent will or desire to change the formula, allow me to introduce the THAW Scale.

Ten Hates About Who.

That’s right, in place of any full review I will be awarding each episode a score out of 10, based on the THAW Scale. One point for each of the chronic-fatigue-syndrome-inducing elements that rears its head like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day.
The higher the score, the less the episode impressed. Simple.

As a guide/reminder, the 10 elements on the THAW Scale are:

1.        THE MUSIC – too busy, too loud
2.        SOLDIERPHOBIA – Doctor hates soldiers
3.        TARDIS – use of the TARDIS to solve situations
4.        SONIC – use of the magic wand to solve situations
6.        SOAP - Whollyoaks
7.        GENIUS – pretending to be clever and failing
8.        MAGIC – moon-eggs, tree-fairies and the like
9.        NOT-MONSTERS – they’re not scary, they’re just misunderstood
10.      CLARA – girlfriend, just become a character, or leave (again) already

Episodes might not include all the above (gawd save us if they do), but might score more if they’re really heavy on one element. E.g. Forest Of The Night, very very heavy on tree fairies, might easily win itself 4 points just for its special blend of Disney Tinkerbell poo, growfast-and-vanish-overnight fire-resistant trees and miraculously reappearing missing children. Factor in Murray Gold’s din, not-monsters and Clara with all that homework to mark and the Doctor might only have to whip out his screwdriver and wave it around a bit in front of all those schoolkids to drive it up to a decidedly dodgy 10/10. And almost all episodes from last season score highly (ie. badly) for Clara and Soap, because the girl has an aversion to time-space travel and adventure, feeling the need to break up the monotony of it all with holding down a teaching job and crappy carbolic soap style romance with Danny Dull Pink.

A friend of mine pointed out that, on this scale, most old Who would score pretty darned well (i.e. very low), despite perhaps being a poor story. Well, true, but that’s because these are largely modern phenomena – at least as far as their excessive use goes – and there are other reasons a DW story can be poor, of which you will find multiple examples in the show’s 50+ year history. Still, as I watch through some of my old DW DVDs, if I post a review here I’ll include a THAW Scale rating for fun.

NOTE: No other viewers’ enjoyment was harmed during the making of this blog. Your mileage may vary and vive la difference.

SAF 2015