Monday, 11 January 2021

Tales of Old Skaro

Terry Nation said he didn't like other Doctor Who writers using his creations because they couldn't get the Daleks' psychology right. He had a point. Certainly the Daleks have been increasingly badly handled in the 21st century version of the series. I think modern writers are all suckled on character arcs and rubber ducky motivational cues. Screenwriting doctrine teaches them to wrangle stories into those familiar shapes, but they aren't taught to stretch their imaginations out of the box so as to dream up really strange and original fantasies. Give them an alien menace and they want to portray it in soap opera terms -- were they abused? what's their character diamond? how can I make them more human? 

Ugh to all that. The reason the post-Nation Dalek stories kept featuring Davros (who was good for just one story) was that writers said they could give him a lot of dialogue, whereas the Daleks' own monotonous voices meant their dialogue had to be terse. Well, less is more and vice versa. To take an example from another show, as soon as you have a Borg queen spouting theatrically villainous dialogue like Ming the Merciless, the Borg are no longer the Other and you have to start from scratch to create that weirdness and menace. Or (attention, writers) you could just not cock them up to begin with.

Anyway, back to our would-be overlords from Skaro. For two years The Daleks was a strip on the back of the weekly UK comic TV Century 21. There's the first surprise. Only two years? I remember it as a major part of my childhood but the fact is (like the Silver Age heyday of Marvel Comics that same decade) it came and went in a blink. Now those 104 strips have been collected in book form, which you might be able to get here or here. Just not anywhere convenient like Amazon.

Quite apart from the stories, which are gems of compressed comics writing by Alan Fennell and David Whitaker, the background material about the strips is fascinating. As a child I never knew the artists’ names, but I remembered the first one (Richard Jennings) as being quite sloppy in the way he drew Daleks, which for speed he just did as round bullet-shapes. He also drew the strips in the first two Dalek annuals.

Ron Turner took over after a year. His work was more stylish, and he put more effort into getting the Daleks’ shape right, but I don’t think the stories were as good later on. And because his artwork was executed with such technical precision it was less engaging than Jennings's scrappier panels. There's a lesson there for comics artists today.

Why did Jennings leave the strip? I found the answer on the ever-reliable Bear Alley:
"[Jennings] spent a year drawing The Daleks for the back page of TV Century 21 in 1965 but drifted away from comics. 'For 18 months I worked as a long-distance lorry driver. Not very exciting but I was broke! I took my ancient jeep up to the Yorkshire Dales where I travelled around painting pub signs and portraits.'"

And that was when there were a lot of comics selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies every week. How much more impossible it is to make a living as an artist today. To think of a talented creative craftsman reduced to driving a lorry because it wasn't possible for him to actually get a decent wage for his work. I'd say it makes me weep but mainly it just makes me furious.
Still, those are old battles lost long ago. Back to the present day: the collection's editor, Marcus Hearn, theorizes that the end of the strip runs straight into the TV/movie storyline Daleks' Invasion Earth. But that’s set in 2150 AD, whereas the human race in the TV21 strip are clearly much more advanced, with FTL spaceships, which implies that it leads into the events of The Dalek Book and The Dalek World, which are set in the 25th century. (Since that’s the Daleks’ first contact with humanity, they must use their later discovery of time travel to conquer Earth in 2150, presumably to prevent their defeat at the end of The Dalek Book.)

Monday, 2 November 2020

Martin's mum and the banshee

I've just learned of the death in September 2020 of Martin McKenna, a friend and colleague on many projects besides Mirabilis, including Warrior Kings and Frankenstein's Legions. I'm going to write at length about my memories of Martin, but that will take a while -- the term is over-used, but he was unique. In the meantime, I wanted to share something he told me which shows his love of the strange. He was no more superstitious or religious than I am, but we both enjoyed stories like this for the real magic in them. Not magic that's real in the way a table or chair are real, that is, but the much more vital and wonderful magic of the human imagination.

Over to Martin:

“This little story was told to me by my mother during a week’s holiday that she and I spent at South Foreland Lighthouse, a decommissioned light on the White Cliffs in Kent now run as a holiday cottage by The National Trust. We were there just before Christmas 2007. It wasn’t entirely ideal, as it turned out, because my elderly mum found the place a little too dark and isolated for her liking and she felt a bit uneasy at night-time, surrounded as we were by pitch blackness. This was my first surprise as I hadn’t expected her to be at all bothered by anything like that, having been born and brought up in darkest rural Ireland in the 1930s, and in fact had expected her, a country girl at heart, to enjoy escaping from London to the peace and quiet of this isolated bit of coast while being safe and cosy at the lighthouse; it really was a lovely spot for a quiet holiday, I thought. Added to this was the association the place had with my eldest brother, who had been stationed there during his career as a lighthouse-keeper.

“Trying to analyse why she sometimes felt unsettled in the place, we chatted about it one night in the lighthouse kitchen and our talk unexpectedly turned to the subject of ghosts. This was my next surprise because throughout my life my mum has always been sceptical about supernatural things, and would always derogate any talk of such stuff. She admitted that the stretch of coast where we were staying felt haunted to her - with its long history and hundreds of shipwrecks (‘All those drowned souls’) right on our doorstep as it were – and this was what made her uneasy at night. I was amazed, especially when she followed this by saying, ‘I’ve seen ghosts and things, when I was younger’. She was very matter-of-fact about this, and following my incredulous reaction of, ‘You have?! What like?’ she said simply, ‘Of course, Ireland’s full of that sort of thing; and I saw a Banshee’.

“Hearing this from my own mum was remarkable, as I’d never heard her talk about anything like this before, let alone the Banshee which is one of my favourite creatures from Irish folklore. This was bizarre! Of course I asked her to tell me everything about it.

“To set the scene a little, my mum grew up in County Monaghan in Ireland, in the sparsely-populated rural community of Aughaderry. The nearest actual town was (and probably still is) Aughnacloy over the border in Co. Tyrone. Her local community as she describes it was very scattered, with farms and houses dotted about over a wide area, sometimes a mile or more between neighbours. As a youngster, my mum was always riding about this and neighbouring townlands on her bike, out on various jobs and errands for her parents from their farm. My mum reckons when the following took place she was aged about 13 or 14, which would’ve made it 1942 or 1943. While WWII was raging elsewhere, my mum was away on the bogs encountering spooks.

“It was getting near dusk, and my mum was riding home on her bike (all the ghostly sightings she described to me – there were about three or four others – were witnessed from this mystery-machine bicycle). She was riding along one of the lonely back roads in the neighbouring town of Killabrone, behind the house of a guy called Paddy Traynor. My mum remembers that he was a farmer who lived alone, and was known to the local kids because he had an orchard with fantastic apples which they’d always be stealing. Paddy Traynor’s house was on the ‘main’ road (still only a minor country road), and directly behind the house was a field, and at the bottom of that was the road along which my mum was riding that evening.

“At the point where the road bordered Paddy Traynor’s field it climbed a steep hill, so my mum was walking her bike up it as she was accustomed to doing every time she took that road home. From the road she could see over a hedge directly into Paddy Traynor’s field, beyond which was his house. What my mum saw and heard then was very odd. There was a strange woman in a floor-length dress walking about in the field, and she was screaming. The woman was walking to and fro across the scrubby, muddy field endlessly screaming, and screaming. As my mum described it, “It was a terrible strange cry, not like a normal scream, more like a fox or something”.

“I asked her to describe the woman, and she said that she remembers the long skirt, and that her long hair was all tied back and ‘like straw’. But my mum couldn’t recall the woman’s face, or what sort of age she might’ve been; pointing out that that day was more than sixty years ago. Besides, my mum didn’t hang about; this screaming, pacing woman understandably frightened her, and without another soul anywhere in sight, she quickly hurried on up the hill to get away home. She left the woman behind her, screaming in the field in the dusk.

“When she got home she told her mother what she’d experienced, and her mum – my grandmother – very matter-of-factly said, “Oh, you saw the Banshee. That means someone soon is going to die”. Sure enough, within two or three days they heard the news of Paddy Traynor’s death.

“This all struck me as remarkably odd, and I quizzed my mum for further details to help fill in the gaps. Most importantly, this strange screaming woman was a total stranger, and this was unheard of in that neighbourhood at that time – it’s not like she might’ve been some upset relative or neighbour of Paddy’s, or a traumatized survivor of a nearby accident or some such who’d wandered into Paddy’s field; or a patient who’d legged it from some nearby asylum. Folk really didn’t travel far, and outsiders were rarely if ever encountered in those days in that part of the country, apparently. My mum maintains that it was unheard of for strangers to just turn up in that neighbourhood without everyone else knowing, and no-one ever spoke of seeing any unfamiliar woman going about the place (screeching or otherwise), so no plausible scenario seems to explain this woman’s presence.

“Strangest of all of course is the coincidence of Paddy Traynor’s death, just a couple of days after this ‘Banshee’-like figure was in the man’s field outside his house. From what my mum remembers, Paddy Traynor lived alone, was aged around 40, and as far as she can recall died of natural causes.”

* * *

It's too early for the card below, which Martin titled "Harpy Christmas", but just this once let's waive the rules.

Monday, 14 September 2020

"I may run an elevator, but I'll never write a hack story"

"[Frank Belknap Long] has stopped looking for the real spirit and essence of a work of fiction, but has begun to appraise fiction according to the popular, commercial standard, laying favourable stress on such meretricious tricks as plot twists, exaggerated dramatic tableaux, jack-in-the-box climaxes, snappy dialogue, scene-shifting pageantry and all the other superficial, artificial devices."

The good folks at the H P Lovecraft Historical Society regularly read and discuss his letters, and I found this one on the writing process particularly interesting. Listen from 8m 30s in, as the first part is housekeeping between HPL and his agent. But when he gets onto writing, and how success in writing (as opposed to success at selling books) can only be measured against your personal standards of the craft -- then it gets fascinating.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Is the world ready for two-speed fiction?

The writer Fay Weldon provoked outrage a while back. (It’s the dream of every writer to still be doing that in our eighties, and boy is the Internet making it easier.) Ms Weldon’s heresy was to suggest that writers in the future might need to produce two versions of each novel: one opening with a bang and racing through the story, the other taking all sorts of leisurely detours into character.

If I’d read only the headline, maybe I would have been spluttering at that myself. But here’s what Ms Weldon actually said:
“Writers have to write now for a world where readers are busy, on the move, and have little time for contemplation and reflection. The writer has to focus on writing better, cutting to the chase, and doing more of the readers’ contemplative work for them.”
“Writing better” seems pretty key there. Leaving aside the possibility that she was indulging in a certain amount of hyperbole, she is acknowledging that all well written books are page turners. Literary fiction – if we must use the term – is not the plotless meandering indulgence that its detractors would have you believe. War & Peace goes down a lot smoother than a Dan Brown novel, let me tell you.

The refutation of Ms Weldon’s points seem primarily to take the form of: “Pish and tosh, I read Fifty Shades of Grey in print and Ulysses on Kindle; so there.” At least I took that to be the thrust of Alison Flood’s argument as she delivered a sound Johnsonian kick to Ms Weldon’s assertion:
“Weldon’s reading of the situation just makes me think she doesn’t have an e-reader. And that she hasn’t looked at the current physical bestseller charts, stuffed with commercial fiction, either.”
And yet nothing Fay Weldon is saying particularly contentious, or even new. Nor surely would she claim it to be. Dial back eighty years and zero in on a Brooklyn newsstand. Black Mask and Argosy and The Shadow were selling north of a hundred thousand copies a month. Had Hemingway been willing to dumb down To Have and Have Not just a teeny bit (you can suggest that to him while I wait in the Tardis) then it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the pulp magazines. In good writing, the contemplative and the exciting happen at the same time.

Still, you couldn’t pull that dumbing-down trick with just any quality novel. The Sound and the Fury, say. So there always was a spectrum from pulp to highbrow, even if nobody could quite point to the boundaries. And Ms Weldon’s proposal that authors write two versions was common practice even back then. To Have and Have Not germinated from a short story Hemingway wrote for Cosmopolitan.

There’s nothing revelatory about saying that medium influences content. The novel a Victorian would expect to read in paper-bound partwork would be more of a sensational affair than he’d look for in a hardcover. Chinese and Japanese publishers, who experience the future a little sooner than we do in the West, were finding ten years ago that classic works like Dream of the Red Chamber weren’t what strap-hanging commuters wanted to read on their phones. As so the thumb novel was born. Or rather reborn, like a Water Margin hero, from the spirit of the Shadow and Doc Savage.

But was that the device, or was it the price? Zipping back to mid-30s New York, a brand new copy of a short novel like To Have and Have Not or Of Mice and Men is going to set you back $2.75, while you can take home Black Mask for 15 cents. Pulp fiction and literature were separate Galapagos islands – as far apart as news-stands and bookstores, as pocket change and a billfold. The digital market has lowered the ocean so that those ecosystems are joined, and so self-publishers can push the pulp formula to its ultimate expression: a horizon-blanketing tsunami of genre novels at a penny or less. Under such conditions even Sturgeon’s Law breaks down. We look back longingly at the days when only nine-tenths of this stuff was crap.

But don’t forget what bobbed up from the bottom of Pandora’s jar. Hollywood may be in a creative nose-dive, but that hasn’t prevented the rise of ten-hour movies (Breaking Bad, The Americans, Chernobyl) of a quality and story depth von Stroheim could only dream about. The ubiquity of McDonald’s doesn’t stop me from chowing down at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. And a million overweight dads booting footballs around the park doesn’t damage the standard of play at Old Trafford. (I have to confess that last example is purely theoretical; I never watched a game in my life.)

The truth, as Fay Weldon said right at the start of all this, is that we could all do with better writing. The gripping immediacy of a Robert E Howard or Walter Gibson yarn is something even Will Self might aspire to. And just to show that under the sun there is no new thing, let’s give the last word to Anthony Trollope writing a hundred and thirty years ago -- though it could as easily have been just last week:
“Among English novelists a great division is made. There are sensational novels and anti-sensational, sensational novelists and anti-sensational, sensational readers and anti-sensational. The novelists who are considered to be anti-sensational are generally called realistic. I am realistic. My friend Wilkie Collins is generally supposed to be sensational. The readers who prefer the one are supposed to take delight in the elucidation of character. Those who hold by the other are charmed by the continuation and gradual development of a plot. All this is, I think, a mistake — which mistake arises from the inability of the imperfect artist to be at the same time realistic and sensational. A good novel should be both, and both in the highest degree. If a novel fail in either, there is a failure in art.”

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The green comet has arrived

Finally, and only 119 years and four and a half months behind schedule, here comes that comet. It's a once-in-120-centuries occurrence and it's only coming within about fifty million miles of Earth, but if that's near enough for one wish I'm going to hope for some way to carry on with Mirabilis, the project that's still the dream of my heart. Never say never, I keep telling myself.

Monday, 30 December 2019

The shows that rinse and repeat

Who watches the Watchmen? I will, but only if you can assure me that the story is properly wrapped up in one season. I've seen too many TV shows that throw a bunch of plates in the air, keep them spinning for a dozen episodes, adding more until it looks like they'll all come down either in a triumphant flourish or a crash of broken crockery -- only for the season finale to tie up no loose ends whatsoever; merely saying, in effect: "Come back next year for more of the same."

I know why writers do it. Well, yes, there's the lure of another payday, obviously. That's not nothing. But also it's because bringing a story together is hard. The job is so much easier in the early stages where you can throw everything in. The only limit is the writer's imagination. But then, around the midway point, the terrible hectoring inner voice can be heard that speaks up for the craft. Things that have been set up must pay off. Threats must be faced and dealt with. Promises that have been tacitly made with the viewer must be kept. If you're lazy, you tune that out and try to keep the throw-everything-in stage going forever.

Serious offenders include The Fall, whose first series followed a nail-biting cat-&-mouse between the detective heroine and a serial killer. How would she catch him? And what would the personal cost be? As it turned out, she wouldn't catch him. Rather than dream up a new adversary for season two, the writer just had him slip away so that the high jinks could resume next time. Nothing was resolved.

Likewise with Killing Eve, where after a season of queasy death-wish teasing between the antagonists, the psycho we're meant to like slips away with a knife-wound in her side. "Go after her!" I wanted to yell at the heroine (the eponymous Eve; the show's title was another promise never kept) who could even then have brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. "She's literally ten seconds ahead of you and she's bleeding out." But no. Somebody else comes in and says, "It's too late. She's gone." And you can almost hear Eve thinking it will go on and on, this chase, like the plot of The Worm Ouroboros, only in this case not because of an elegant reflection of the story's underlying themes but just to ensure ongoing pay packets for those concerned and an endlessly interrupted coitus of spy-porn wankery.

Oh, and Westworld. Great first season. But by the finale they clearly have nowhere interesting left to go, so it ends with the gnawing sense that new rails will be laid in front of the engine forever. It even looks like it's ending on a cliffhanger. That's the worst crime for any ongoing series, if the cliffhanger comes simply as a break in the ongoing plot rather than being a new threat emerging after old strands have been tied up. The show's writers are saying, in effect, that the whole season you thought was going to have a beginning, middle and end has in fact been just the bringing together of pieces so that the real party could begin in season two. Aristotle would punch 'em in the kisser.

But look. It can be done well. Vinyl built up over ten episodes as multiple narrative trains hurtled towards collision. The finale brought all the immediate threats to a conclusion while setting up the basis for another season. Instead of just breaking at the end of the season as though it were just another episode, there is closure there and in the closure the seeds of a new direction. Unfortunately Vinyl never got a second season while less carefully crafted shows hurtle on and on towards the eventual heat death of the medium.

A conscientious writer (Alan Garner, for example; or arguably J Michael Straczynski) won't start until they have the end of the story planned. As Andrew Stanton explains below, it's "knowing your punchline, making sure that everything... is leading to a singular goal". That's why I'd ask every show creator about their ending in the first pitch meeting. If you have a destination in mind, the journey will be much more enjoyable -- and, if the Fates are kind and it turns out the dollars are there for another trip, you'll have satisfied customers queuing up to go again.

Friday, 20 December 2019

How not to script an action climax

Picture this . You’re at a Hollywood pitch meeting: "And as the LEM descends towards the moon, Armstrong has a crisis of confidence. 'I can't do it, Buzz!' he says. But then he has a dream in which he's standing in the Midwest somewhere with a baseball bat, and Chuck Yeager is there dressed as a giant eagle and he's about to pitch the ball. Neil drops the bat, but Chuck tells him to pick it up, he can do it. And as he reaches for the bat we're back on the LEM and he's reaching for the controls. Determined look from Neil, admiring look from Buzz, swelling music, and then we cut to Houston and after a long tense pause: 'The Eagle has landed.'"

That’s terrible writing. Yet it’s the sort of thing that’s all the rage in superhero movies. We’re at the climax and the hero is on the brink of defeat. They go into a dream sequence, get a pep talk from a (usually dead) mentor, then snap back to the present and "with one bound" they’re free and turn the tables on the baddie. Thor: Ragnarok, Captain Marvel, you name it.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about mentors (though they are overused because every screenwriter swears by Joseph Campbell these days), I’m complaining about the interior vision in which the hero is given a boost of wisdom or courage: ‘Here’s your elixir like Campbell talks about on page 497. Now get back and fight.’ It's lazy writing. The dream sequence approach is no different from fixing all the loose ends in a story by dropping a god out of the machinery.

It’s bad writing because it’s telling, not showing. It kills momentum by building to what ought to be a nail-biting moment and suddenly swerving off into a fantasy scene. In effect, rather than crafting the story, the writer is taking a time out to try and convince us why his or her story should work. Those writers are so used to notes and rewrites that they don’t know that’s not how the finished thing should look; it’s as though you arrived at a building and found the only way to the upper storeys was by way of scaffolding left by the builders.

Good writing would be to have already done the work throughout the story so we are able to see the character’s arc leading inevitably to this point. Examples: Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger. Or, returning to the building analogy: put the bloody stairs in.