That Was MY Idea, That ... er, What?

(A while back, someone asked for my thoughts on NA elements in New Who. This is what I said on the matter.)

Everybody, famously, knows where they were when Kennedy was shot. I know I do. I was going through of process of meiosis in my mother’s tummy, subsequent to a knee-trembler round the back of some Nissan Hut or other, my birth-mother being a member of the Women’s Royal Army Corps at the time.

Thus I was far too young and unformed to hold a gun, was nowhere near Dallas at the time, so you can’t pin it on me. That’s one suspect crossed off the list, in any event.

Likewise, my involvement with an event of the same time, an event far more pertinent to the subject in hand - the first episode of the popular television drama, Doctor Who - was by necessity somewhat minimal. I gather, from an interview on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, that the show was the direct result of a focus-group committee, actively designed to be liked by the broadest possible number of people … and so my only contribution was, nascently, being one of the people of whom it might like to be liked.

This policy of non-involvement continued for a number of years as the show was run by, and received the imprint of a personal stamp from, everyone from Marvin the Paranoid Android to Widow Twanky. I just sat there and gawped at it, sucking it in to the busily preforming child-brain along with that whole mélange of Hitch-hiker's, Randall and Hopkirk, Action comic, The Champions, Tomorrow People, prototypical console games and so on, and so on, and so on, that in the fullness of time would come to be collectively known of as Menk.

Like many others of my generation I was simply enamoured of this stuff, incorporated it. So much a part of me it was that I was convinced, on some fundamental level, that this was what I was going to do when I grew up - much in the same way that I’m still waiting for them to give me a jet-pack and let me live in a colony-dome on Mars.

And of course, as we all know, just as I was getting to the age where I could actually do something about it, they pulled the sodding plug. This was a bit of a blow. All part of the track-record of the BBC in the ‘80s and ‘90s, of course - from canceling The Goodies and using the money to ruin The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the small screen, to the comment from some high-up that sci-fi fans were being catered for perfectly well cos they were still making Red Dwarf. Still, it was something of a personal blow.

Fortunately, any number of other people had also been blown by the BBC … and in the fullness of time they would find a small protective enclave in the Virgin New Adventures - the licensed and official continuation of the Doctor’s adventures in print.

Serious moment, here, since - all joking aside - a lot of people don’t realise what a true phenomenon the NA’s were in popular fiction - certainly in Science Fiction as a genre:

The basic premise, after all, involved this guy who could go anywhere, any time, and do anything when he got there. Combine that with the sheer scale of production - at their height, the Virgin and later the BBC Books were putting out at least two full-length novels per month - and you had a market for largely original, SF-related fiction unparalleled since the pulp-fiction magazines of 1940’s America.

These were not some strictly controlled pieces of by-the-numbers spinoffery like the Star Trek books, and the breadth of basic concept meant that it would be a push to even describe them as ‘shared-world’ fiction. More like a sub-genre of Science Fiction, in and of themselves.

And crucially, of course, being licensed and sanctioned by the franchise-holders, and the only game in town for the remaining fans, there was the neigh-on certainty that they would punch way above their weight in sales.

Like I said, a phenomenon. And the result was, when Alan Carr … I beg your pardon, when Russell T Davies came to reboot the show, there was a huge conceptual backlog over and above the entire televised history - in terms of wordage and sheer number of ideas at least.

A lesser man might have simply ignored the lot, but Russell - writer of an NA himself - was better than that and did not. Thus, ultimately, necessarily, there was a certain amount of bleed-through from the NA’s and the Beeb Books into New Who.

In no particular order, off the top of my head, here’s a small list. And if it’s all very partial and self-serving, well, to quote Krusty the Klown, I’m a lazy, lazy man and can’t be bothered to check every little thing …

- The Time War, the first NA reference to which, as such, I believe occurred in Sky Pirates!

- Humanised Daleks, in the sense that NA mentions of them hinted of cultural subtleties and sympathizing elements nonexistent in the show, in much the same way that the culture of pre-War Japan was pretty much incomprehensible to the West. Ben Aronovitch, for example, mentions ‘Dalek poetry’, which, not having read it, I can only assume consists of haikus rather like this:

Exterminate, exterminate
Vision is impaired
I cannot see

- A charming if occasionally hapless anti-hero, taken out of time and with his own ship, and who becomes a second-string Companion and shags everything that moves. Jason Kane in Death and Diplomacy, natch

- A bright and witty Future Archaeologist who in some certain sense has and will become the most important Companion to the Doctor of all. (Benny/River Song)

- A space-going version of the Titanic, sabotaged by the owners for the Insurance. (Ship of Fools)

- The corpus of Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts. Well, obviously

- The notion that everyone in the future is bisexual

- The Doctor as pants-wetting nemesis for the bad guys. It was Cornell and also Kate Orman, for example, who came up with ‘The Oncoming Storm’, though they connected it with the Draonians rather than the Daleks. (The Daleks, by way of Aronovitch, called him the Bringer of Darkness.) And as Steve Moffatt said, somewhere, ‘Nice guy - if you’re a biped.’

- A Reality Bomb consisting of a planetary orrery. That is, a bunch of planets all, like, crowded together. Sky Pirates!, again …

And on. And on. And so on. Anyhow. At this point you’re probably saying. ‘Oh, come on, Dave! Are you seriously sitting there in a fit of self-aggrandising sour grapes and really thinking New Who ripped you off?’

To which I say, ‘Can you spare a quid or so for a tin of cheapo beer, guv?’

To which you reply, ‘Oh, you poor brave man! I never realised things were so hard for you! Here, take everything in my wallet! I know it’s not much, but it might help.’

All of which is to say, a man can dream. Of course I’m not sitting here thinking I’ve been ripped off or anything. At best, it would be nice to think that I contributed the odd striking image and idea to the whole rich broth of material from which New Who was drawn, and that some of it actually made it to the screen.

I’d like to think that, mind you, but probably not … at the very least because hardly anything I’ve mentioned above was in any way original to me.

The Time War, for example, might have been brought up vaguely in the show, but the first overt explication of it was in a filler-series in the back of Doctor Who Monthly. Written by Alan Moore, who would subsequently, I gather, become a comics writer of some note. It concerned the adventures of the Special Executive, a troupe of metatemporal mercenaries called in to aid the Time Lords, pre-emptively attacked in an attempt to prevent them wiping out their enemies in the future.

Since this was where the Time Lords got their time-travelling technology from in the first place, this might be seen as a bit of a tactical blunder by said enemies. The strip was reprinted in the British monthly Daredevils, to bring the Special Executive into the Marvel Universe and have them meet the Moore-scripted Captain Britain, and that’s where I personally got the Time War from.

Jason Kane was basically me, of course, and my general reactions to this and that. I suppose it’s just possible that his quasi-existence expanded the probability-space of Who to provide room for not entirely heroic characters like Rose’s dad Pete and Captain Jack - but hardly likely in a world that already contained Turlough and Adric.

The Titanic thing. I mean, come on, we’re talking about a sci-fi show involving time-travel. Every show like that and its dog has no doubt set something on the Titanic. And as for ships being sabotaged by the owners, that’s happened in fact and fiction - I got it from a sequence in the hugely funny novel Tik-Tok, by John Sladek, where the death ship in question, far from actually being in space, was standing out in the desert surrounded by Wile E Coyote TNT.

Pansexuality in The Future, and for that matter the eradication of racial divisions, were we all practice techno-exogenesis, all have a rather fetching mocha-latté skin tone and are all Enlightened with a capital E … is such a standard-issue, well-worn and thoughtlessly used SF trope that it’s not even worth talking about. So I won’t.

As for Planetary Orreries … well, the whole basis of Fantastickal stories, historically, is that various planets and worlds are close enough together that you can travel to them in a cart pulled by geese or whatnot. I distinctly remember making the term Reality Bomb up - but it’s such a perfectly obvious term I can’t imagine that any number of people haven’t come up with it completely independently.

It’s a depressing thing to realise, really, that my single and unequivocal contribution to New Who - and thus to the culture of the world in general - is a throwaway remark made in the pub that I’m Proper Dave and somebody else is Other Dave. Only, this late in the day, I can’t for the life of me remember whether I made it and Moffatt laughed, or whether he made it and I did. That’s a bit of a pain, but I suppose it’s something.

Anyhow. You’ll have no doubt noticed - careful and attentive reader that you are - that while I’ve been waffling on about things that were my idea but, no, they really weren’t, that I’ve in actual fact been talking about something else. That’s proper good writing, that is. (That’s a technical term us proper good writers use; don’t worry your pretty little head about it.)

What I’m talking about, of course, is what they call Entitlement. Others have dissected it at length, and far better than I ever could but, in short, it’s a value-neutral term for the way in which a fan incorporates some work within him to the extent that the acts of creation and consumption blur.

This can lead to over-proprietorial obsession, but for the most part it’s something that informs and enriches countless day-to-day lives. One feels one owns something, and that the simple fact of owning it transforms it in a somewhat magical way. This isn’t something I was given; this is something that I made …

It’s a bit complicated for me and Who, sure, since it’s just possible that my personal influence has made an actual and substantive difference - but, you know, I’m talking about the feeling.

The point, such as it is, is that Entitlement is never happier than when attaching itself to Great works. The works that take some commonality and shine a light on it brighter than several suns.

The first Star Wars (the proper first one) is a humongous and shambolic mess - but also a Great movie. It’s just everything that part of us that goes, ‘Yay! Death-ray-battles! Pew! Pew! Pew!’ wants to see in a space-opera.

Alan Moore, who I mentioned, has any number of flaws as a writer - don’t get me started - but he’s also a Great Writer. Watchmen, whatever else it was, was everything that part of us which goes, ‘Hang on, what would obviously happen if Superman even tried to do that in any real life?’ wants to see in a superhero comic.

And Doctor Who, of course, is what everybody wants to see in The Single Greatest Adventure Show on TV in the History of Evar.

For any and all of the particular flaws in it’s production, the fact that it is in production should have all right-thinking people on their knees daily and thanking God. If He existed.

Which of course He doesn’t. But then you can’t have everything.

That is all.

About Cats

Everyone on the Internet, it seems, likes nothing better than to talk about cats. And it occurs to me I did that, once, at the front of a charity book concerning them.

This is, slightly updated, what I said on the matter:

For someone with a complete indifference to the joys of cat, I seem to have had the uncanny knack of acquiring them. A dead girl dropped one on my lap once, and he became Bonzo. We were all so much younger at the time - especially the cat - and more than one of us all was still alive, so the name seemed really funny and clever.

This was back in the days when writing involved typewriters; the physical business of winding paper round a platen … and Bonzo’s thing was to pelt around the room, dive onto a ream of A4 manuscript and surf it off the table in an explosion of loose sheets. This was very amusing. Bonzo’s favourite food in the world was CocoPops, and we made up a song about that.

When I shared a house with my sister in South London, we acquired a brother-and-sister pair from kitten. Mork was a bully and Mindy, being the smaller, was long-suffering … right until the point she’d had quite enough, and took him quite definitively to the cleaners. Thereafter, he followed her around like a puppy dog – if the term can be properly used in this context – and looked on as she trounced all territorial encroachments in short order. They ended out in the wilds of Suffolk, and went around beating up the local foxes, who aren’t a patch on the rangy little street-fighters you get in London.

Current-day Spoiler: They're both dead.

During a short and somewhat disastrous marriage, I and spouse were adopted by a fat, smug article who muscled his way in through the legacy cat flap and demanded to be fed. Said article came to rejoice in the name of Bilbo, despite every protestation at my command. This went on for a couple of years, before we learnt that the fatness and smugness had something to do with the fact that he was being owned and fed, under a variety of names, by half the neighbourhood.

Moving around a lot, one tends to remain functionally cat-free - until Head Office catches up with you and sends in the big guns. In this case, a long-haired, bedraggled and frenetically affectionate black and white-patched stray, on the very upper-end of kittenhood, obviously housetrained, and turfed out when he had begun to grow.

He contrived to squirrel around me and my partner of the time, on the walk back from the local Tapas bar, apparently having fallen in desperate love with my boots. (And don't get me wrong, they were lovely boots.) On reaching home, it would have been the act of a cold-hearted monster not to have let the specimen in. Unfortunately, my objections were overridden. Partner’s youngest son, who was five at the time, promptly gave him the name Minardi. Youngest son was and is an avid fan of Formula One.

Minardi was at just precisely the right age to be chipped and snipped without turning him nasty. There wasn't a mean bone in his body - no bones at all, when he lay there pointing in around seven different and totally unconnected directions. Copious quantities of kitten-mix and mackerel left him two and a half feet long and a foot wide, none of which was fat … and not counting the tail, which was bushy as a skunk’s and as long as his body again. Those measurements are approximate and mutable: when he lay against a door to take advantage of the draft, his body stretched the entire span, like a draft-excluder.

He was also quite clearly insane. He never lost the sense of mad amazement which seems to come as standard-issue with all kittens, and usually goes out the window second it’s done its job and conned them into a home. My boots still sent him into demented fits of joy, usually when I was climbing the stairs with a PowerBook in hand. His favourite place in the world was the bathroom sink, which he filled amorphously, and it was somewhat disconcerting to blunder in of a hung-over morning, and sit down to see two wide, bright eyes staring at you and asking what you were doing.

When he was thirsty, the cat would turn on the damn kitchen tap. Admittedly, the tap was of the lever-operated variety, as opposed to something that required actual thumbs, but a mindfulness of old jokes had one seriously considering hiding the tin-opener.

Anyhow. Again.

The reason I bring all this up is to make the point that cats are different from each other in the same way that people are different. They’re not like dogs, trying to join in with the pack; they’re individuals with the capacity for socialisation. Cats are, in some basic sense, people … whether you like it or not. And as such they deserve a specific and particular degree of consideration.

I've mentioned the various programmes of spaying and neutering feral cat colonies to a number of people, and got a reaction from one or two that I hadn’t expected. Of its sort, I believe, it’s akin to the reaction that guys of any stripe have when the fixing of any animal is mentioned: cross the legs and give a little whimper. The articulation of it, though, came in serious terms, and as such deserves a serious reply.

In a nutshell (as it were) the point of these one or two people was this: spaying and neutering feral cats could be seen as being more cruel than simply exterminating them. In a Darwinian sense, we have taken away from them the sole purpose of life - that of reproduction - without their consent, thus rendering existence meaningless for them. Better, morally, to leave well enough alone and let nature sort it out, or damn well bite the bullet and break out the gas canisters.

Well, no. The point about the Darwinian imperative - unless you really, really do believe in a Purposeful God - is that it is entirely value-free. The fact that an organism exists, or survives, or reproduces is neither good nor right in and of itself. It is a simple fact. How that fact is interpreted comes down to personal preference … and where people are concerned, what people say goes.

The purpose and meaning of life, so far as people are concerned, is to increase the sum of happiness and to decrease that of suffering. By that yardstick, extermination-programmes fail for obvious reasons, and letting ‘nature’ take its course fails spectacularly - unless a Malthusian nightmare of starvation and disease are anybody’s idea of a good time.

In the here and now, the only option one can face with equanimity is restricting the breeding of feral cats. One could issue condoms and instructional pamphlets, I suppose - but, frankly, cats don’t strike me as bright enough, whether they’re people or not.

In the end, rather like pluralistic democracy, the spaying and neutering of feral cats is not an ideal solution in any number of respects - it’s just the best solution that there is if one wishes to stay in some degree humane.

It’s a people thing, basically. And in dealing with people, with the choice of being cruel, or doing nothing, or at least trying to be kind - trying to be kind is what people are all about.