Monday, January 12, 2009

short trips: how the doctor changed my life

I was going to buy this book, but I actually won it for free, so that’s even better! It was always my intention to tackle my sour grapes head on, because as a writer I can be terribly, terribly jealous. I was, of course, prepared to hate all 25 stories that got noticed by Big Finish while my five offerings were ignored in the pile of 900+ entries. But I have to say this is possibly the best short story collection I’ve ever read, Doctor Who or otherwise. There wasn’t a single short story I disliked, they all had something to offer, and I might venture to suggest these short stories beat out the commissioned, professional writers of the earlier Short Trips collections I’ve read (there are probably several very good reasons for that, which I’ll get to later).

It is nice to see some geographical variation among the winners (Australians and North Americans among all the Brits) as well as short stories from three women! There weren’t any historical adventures (well, unless you count 1957 as historical) and a real dearth of Eighth and First Doctor stories. My favorites happen to be “Child’s Play” by LM Myles, “The Last Thing You Ever See,” by Richard Goff, “The Man on the Phone” by Mark Smith, “Those Left Behind” by Violet Addison, “Evitability” by Andrew K Purvis, “£436” by Nick May, “Swamp of Horrors” by Michael Rees, and “Lares Domestici” by Anna Bratton. While I liked “Homework” by Michael Coen, which was the overall winner—hilariously the 11-year-old protagonist is a bit frightened of the hobo-ish Second Doctor and Jamie wearing his kilt—it just wasn’t my personal favorite. (Though it did have some very satirical things to say about time travel and fandom in general.)

Simon Moore channels “Revelation of the Daleks” a bit in “Change Management,” a clever tale of the Sixth Doctor and Mel, with poor people being fed to a Flux in order to keep tourism running; fortunately the author reveals he left the job that inspired the tale. “Curiosity” by Mike Amberry was very well-suited to the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa; it’s like a Ray Bradbury story but without the cruel ending. I’m not that crazy about the structure of “Potential” by Stephen Dunn, but it’s certainly a novel approach to the Third Doctor. I really liked “Second Chances” by Bernard O’Toole, not least because his Eighth Doctor and Charley were well-written (and I could imagine Paul McGann saying the lines, added bonus). And the defeated, slightly pathetic enemy gets his just desserts. This is what I like best about the foremost of these tales: they think outside the (phone) box of Doctor Who and combine it with strong writing, not just in the plot idea, but narrative and character-wise.

“Relativity” by Michael Montoure reminded me of a short story my ex wrote, which I found extremely confusing at the time. Montoure’s story is less confusing and emulates the time-bending of “Blink,” but in a story very suited to Ace and the Seventh Doctor. Ace in particular is well-written. Love the creepy yet sweet ending. I also loved “Outstanding Balance” by Tim Lambert. He gets the prize for the most creative aliens, a race of egg-like creatures who go around giving people parking tickets. I got the book courtesy of “The Shopping Trolleys of Doom”’s author, Caleb Woodridge, and while one might sniff at the story idea from the onset, it’s actually charmingly executed, in the vein of “Change Management” (I was told that my ficlet for the Seventh Doctor’s worst day was the weirdest situation that Doctor could be in, but I think this one takes the cake). “The Final Star” by Michael Wing is a strange, pretty tale that makes good use of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn.

In my short acquaintance with Short Trips, I’ve seen variants on the story “The Monster in the Wardrobe” by James C McFetridge done several times. Still, the Fourth Doctor and Romana are captured well in their zany moments, and this is one of the darkest entries. Einar Olgeirsson has really gotten to the essence of the Eighth Doctor in “Suns and Mothers”—and not just the character, but the real spirit of his brief escapade on our screens. It also has hints of Rose’s life on the Estate as well as “42.” Matthew James’ “Taking the Cure” also has some wicked hints of Only Human, with some good interaction between the protagonist, the Sixth Doctor, and Peri. I quite enjoyed “Time Shear” by Steven Alexander, primarily because of the character of Miss Richards, and how she interacts with a group of young space-hopping aliens. There is some surprising violence in this one, which Miss Richards and the Fourth Doctor are powerless against, but an uplifting ending. “Running on Empty” by JR Loflin makes me think it would fit better in Sarah Jane Adventures for some reason; the end’s a bit of an anti-climax, but there is a sobering mix of sadness and sweetness in it, perfectly suited to the Seventh Doctor. “Insider Dealing” by Dann Chinn is notable for its unique second-person narrative and a very up-close, descriptive portrait of the Fourth Doctor. “The Andrew Invasion” by John Callaghan was a bit like “The Next Doctor” and the Batman story “Urban Legend”—charming, though. “Stolen Days” by Arnold T Blumberg is a sobering, scary portrait that has a lot in common with “Relativity”—again, good story for the Seventh Doctor.

There was certainly a glut of Fourth Doctor stories with various companions, more than I expected. My favorites were “Child’s Play” and “Those Left Behind.” “Child’s Play” has a wonderful protagonist who reminds me of my friend who used to work in a teddy bear shop; it has the creepiness factor to the max and yet a sleepy kind of innocence that brings the heights of silliness of Romana and the Doctor in focus with beings that inhabit toys. They, too, are only children, after all. The Doctor is captured wonderfully—vaguely unsettling but a strong, curious character. There’s also a fabulous wink at the reader at the end. “Those Left Behind” shares with “Child’s Play” a possible tendency to fan fiction—it’s about Susan’s best friend who ends up meeting the Fourth Doctor—but I found it wonderfully heart-warming. Maybe I like it because it reminds me a bit of “Ian and the Beatles.” I’m sure that’s not it. I also loved “The Last Thing You Ever See” because it was hilarious and captured Sarah Jane, Harry, and the Fourth Doctor pitch-perfect. Truly, it was good enough to have slotted nicely in on Robert Holmes’ schedule. Harry is so under-used, and this really plumbed the depths of his character—while subjecting him to all kinds of torture! The Doctor and Sarah get a scene so worthy of recording I think I’ll draw it: getting smashed in a Star Wars-esque compacter, all the while the quips flying. What a fabulous adventure.

Mark Smith may not be 100% on writing women characters yet, but I can still deeply identify with Lauren in “The Man on the Phone”; in fact I can hear her, with a pronounced Welsh accent, in my mind because I knew someone very like her at the call centre where I worked, mercifully briefly. The story is probably the best Fifth Doctor short story I’ve ever read. The conceit is so fabulous—I had contemplated something similar when I worked at the call centre, but his version is much better—and executed flawlessly. It’s funny and heart-warming, and Five is just perfect with Lauren. Andrew K Purvis takes us out of the British Isles for once to Australia (he’s Australian, as it happens) in “Evitability.” Another great female protagonist, fabulous conceit, superb point of view, and wonderful invocation of the Seventh Doctor. He was staring at me. Hard . . . His eyebrows were furrowed so far forward they shaded his eyes, eyebrows expressive enough to be prehensile.
“£436” is an example of a story so suited to its Doctor/companion team, you can’t imagine it with anyone else. That team, by the way, is the Sixth Doctor and Peri, and they run rampant in a cab through the streets of a seaside resort, dragging poor (but brilliantly written) cabbie Mick with them. It is hysterically funny. “Swamp of Horrors (1957)—Viewing Notes” is also very funny and wins my prize for the most creative framing device. Surely someone must have thought of this before—the Doctor (in this case the Sixth, with Mel) ends up filmed in a movie. It’s supposed to be B-movie slush, but the adventure—involving giant snakes in Louisiana—is real. The lead actor is a spazz and a jerk, and the director is the one whose life will never be the same due to the Doctor’s intervention. What a wonderful format for getting in a 4-part length TV story in in the space of a short story. My hat is off to you, sir! But the collection is finished brilliantly by “Lares Domestici,” possibly the best Second Doctor story I have ever read. Troughton is fabulously invoked, from the sadness and sternness and brilliance to a sweet, bumbling fondness for tea and cakes. I want him living in my house!

I love some of the bios included; what a masterstroke. I also hadn’t seen some of the tips and notes Simon had posted on Outpost Gallifrey which are included here—they’re very helpful. Obviously I was disappointed that none of my stories had made the final cut, but with examples like these, I understand why. Of the five I sent, I dare to say they were all written well, but maybe the only one with an actual plot was “J’ai vu le loup,” and even that didn’t really fit the prompt (or if it did, it was structured in a strange way). The Sixth Doctor and Peri in Disneyland was a good situation, but not a story. I don’t know what counted against “A New Course in Egyptology” (unless it was just dull); I have a fondness for “Second Hand” but maybe it was too fan fiction-y.
I wish all the authors the best of luck. Probably writing to get paid, even for Doctor Who, can get a bit routine after awhile, which is why these stories look so fiery and fabulous in comparison to some of the other Short Trips stuff I’ve read—these new writers have saved up their very best, and perhaps for some of them, as Paul Cornell suggests in his introduction, it’s all they’ve got in them. I hope I can learn from this collection and be ready for next time—whenever that may be.


1 comment:

Quark said...

Hi BLC - I just wanted to thank you (belatedly) for your incredibly generous comments on my story 'The Last Thing You Ever See'. Really made my day. V much appreciated. Richard Goff