Camp NaNoWriMo 2020: Going Better Than I Thought

I don’t have the best record when it comes to Camp NaNoWriMo. In recent years, I’ve been saving new projects for NaNoWriMo in November, and trying to use Camp to edit existing drafts. But I haven’t tended to get very far before running out of steam. This July, however, has been different. I chose to do another edit – the Titanic-based novel I wrote for Camp NaNo 2012 – and while I am technically behind my goal due to a slow start, I’ve been making steady progress and only need to do a couple of extra hours this weekend to get back on track.

I think there’s a few different factors in this. While my NaNo regional group can’t meet up in real life, we have been regularly chatting online, which gives some motivation and accountability, and allows sharing of useful ideas. Plus, I know that when writing the first draft of a novel for NaNoWriMo, the approach that works for me is planning – it’s harder to apply that to editing, but I’ve given it a go. I used OneNote to organise my notes, went back to the themes I originally wanted to explore, and tried to plan out each of the different plotlines, focussing on the most important things that I felt needed amending.

Given that this project is historical fiction, I was thinking a lot about the historical accuracy of what I was writing about and feeling like I’d have to change a great deal to make it work. But then I would be moving further away from the story I wanted to tell in the first place. A friend in the regional group pointed out that the most important thing is strong characters that the reader is interested in – if you have that, some artistic licence is acceptable. Once I’d accepted this, I felt like I could comfortably stick with a lot of the concepts I already had, so long as they were at least plausible.

From there, I was able to lay down my new outlines and re-profile my characters. This month, there’s been a lot of spontaneous scribbling in notebooks and on Post-Its as new ideas occur to me, as well as reading more Titanic reference books to get an even better feel for the setting. I’ve also started reading the writing guidebook Save The Cat Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody, which has been very useful and illuminating so far, as I find I can apply the plot and character concepts it raises, to my own draft.

As I hadn’t been sure I could turn the chaos of my notes and half-done plans into order, successfully doing so served as a confidence booster. Knowing that I was on the right path also gave me something that’s been crucial: an endpoint, at least for this stage in the process. I’m focusing on one plotline at a time, and I’ve got a good idea of what I need to either polish or re-write at each point. Once I’ve done that, the second draft will be complete. The project will still not be finished by then; there will be at least a few more drafts to come, each one focusing on a different area of improvement, like descriptions. But the proper foundations of the story will be in place, and shouldn’t need as much substantial re-working in subsequent drafts.

With a plan in place, and a goal that I can actually visualise, I’m feeling much more motivated than in previous Camps. And once this month is done, I fully intend to carry on into August!

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The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag

My friend Angela completed this tag on her blog, and I wanted to try it out myself. One benefit of the lockdown has been plenty of time for reading and listening to audiobooks; I have completed 39 books so far this year, my Goodreads Reading Challenge target for 2020 being 60. I think that’s certainly enough books to complete a tag about! The original #midyearbookfreakout tag is from Chami and Ely at Earl Grey Books.

1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2020

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. While it took me a few chapters to really get into it, I was loving it by the halfway point, and I definitely see why it’s so highly regarded. It’s full of rich atmosphere, emotional power, some surprisingly funny moments, and encourages self-reflection in the reader.

2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020

The best book I’ve read this year that’s part of a series (and isn’t the first instalment) is Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett, the second book in the Lymond Chronicles. I’d found the first book enjoyable and witty, if a bit hard to comprehend sometimes, and Queens’ Play is more of the same, with a little more intrigue in the plot.

3. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

Devolution, by Max Brooks. I enjoyed World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, so I’m keen to see what he does with Bigfoot.

4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

Troy, by Stephen Fry. This is the next in his series on Greek mythology, continuing from Mythos and Heroes. I’m not so familiar with the story of the Trojan War, so I’m looking forward to hearing about it from Mr Fry – though it’s currently unclear whether this book will include the Odyssey or not.

5. Biggest disappointment

The Sunbird, by Wilbur Smith. When I read A Time to Die earlier in the year, it was the first time in years I’d read anything by Wilbur Smith; I liked the book a lot and wanted to go through his work some more. However, while The Sunbird isn’t really a bad book, I didn’t like it nearly as much. The worst thing about it was the romance: there’s a love triangle between the three main characters in which none of them come out looking too good or deserving of much sympathy. (The romance had been the weakest part of A Time to Die as well.)

6. Biggest surprise

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. I was unsure about this one as it appeared to have mixed reviews, but it was recommended by a friend who’s into personal development. It’s intended to help motivate struggling writers, and I found myself feeling very motivated by it. Pressfield talks about the mental forces of resistance that hold amateur writers back, and how to adjust your mindset to be more professional, all in a very positive and encouraging way. It’s only a short book, so if you’re having a hard time getting words on the page, check it out.

7. Favourite new author (debut or new to you)

In terms of someone whose work I was just introduced to this year and want to read more of, I’ll say Travis Langley. I found his book Batman & Psychology – examining Batman and the characters associated with him through a psychological lens – very interesting, and I’d like to check out the similar books he’s written and co-written on other properties, like Doctor Who.

8. Newest fictional crush

No crushes, but in terms of fictional characters I’d most like to meet, I do wish I could own Einstein the super-intelligent golden retriever from Watchers (by Dean Koontz).

9. Newest favourite character

Thrawn, after reading Star Wars: Thrawn (by Timothy Zahn) – while the character has been part of the Star Wars universe for a while, this was my own first encounter with him. While Thrawn technically works for the bad guys, one can’t help but admire him; he’s always in control, never does anything without a good reason, gives everyone the respect they deserve, and part of the fun with him is trying to figure out what solution he’s got in mind for a seemingly impossible problem.

10. Book that made you cry

I don’t actually cry at books, but the ending of A Prayer for Owen Meany certainly made me very sad, even though the book foreshadows it for some time beforehand.

11. Book that made you happy

Sunny Side Up, by Susan Calman – well, the whole point of this book is to encourage kindness and positivity.

12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought (or received) so far this year

I’m not sure I’d call any book I’ve bought or received this year beautiful, but On a Sea of Glass certainly has a good cover and some excellent pictures inside.

On a Sea of Glass

13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

I’ve got a few new books about the Titanic that I need to read as research for my WIP. I’m also partway through The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin and want to finish that, and I told myself I’d read The Victorians by A.N. Wilson after having it on my shelf for years.

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Classic Who: The Seventh Doctor Era (1987-1989)

Seventh Doctor 1

44-year-old Sylvester McCoy made his onscreen debut as the Seventh Doctor on 7th September 1987, initially donning a blonde wig to depict the regeneration of the Sixth Doctor, with Colin Baker having been dismissed in-between seasons. Soon, however, he shed his predecessor’s amazing technicolour dreamcoat, in favour of a more beige but respectable costume, with a Panama hat and an umbrella with a question-mark-shaped handle. The Seventh Doctor inherited the Sixth’s latest companion, Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford), and they adventured together for the duration of that four-story season. At the season’s conclusion, Mel left the Doctor almost as abruptly as she had arrived, and he took on a new companion named Ace (Sophie Aldred), a teenager fond of explosives and language such as “brill” and “wicked”, as well as calling the Doctor “Professor”.

Seventh Doctor 2

Over the next two seasons, the Doctor and Ace would face Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, and plenty of original enemies, while also teaming up with UNIT and exploring Ace’s troubled backstory on Earth. Unfortunately, none of this was enough to improve the show’s already poor ratings or make BBC executives more kindly disposed towards it; putting it on at the same time as the ITV soap opera Coronation Street certainly didn’t help. By the time production of the twenty-sixth season – McCoy’s third – wrapped up in 1989, it had been decided that Doctor Who would be cancelled – and this time, the BBC meant it.

On 23rd November 1989, twenty-six years to the day since the first episode of Doctor Who aired, McCoy recorded a concluding voiceover, which was played at the end of Survival on 6th December. And that was it for Doctor Who.

Except not, of course. In the 1990s, following a co-production deal between the BBC and American studios, an attempt was made to revive Doctor Who with a made-for-television movie, which was broadcast in May 1996. Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor (unlike Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy did return for an on-screen regeneration), alongside Eric Roberts as the Master. It was hoped that the film would serve as a pilot for a new series, but it failed to attract high enough ratings in the United States for this to materialise.

Then, in 2003, it was announced that the BBC was working on a new series of Doctor Who for the twenty-first century, with Russell T Davies as executive producer and chief writer. Production began in the summer of 2004, with Christopher Eccleston taking on the role of the Ninth Doctor, and Billie Piper playing his companion, Rose Tyler. The first episode of the revival aired on Saturday 26th March 2005….and the rest is history.

My Thoughts

It’s a real shame that the classic series of Doctor Who was cancelled when it was; I personally think that the Seventh Doctor’s era is a big improvement overall on those of the Fifth and Sixth Doctors. Of the twelve stories that make up Sylvester McCoy’s tenure, there are a few less-than-memorable ones, but none that are truly bad. It’s an interesting reflection of the zeitgeist of the time: the Doctor would venture into some grim, industrial, heavily-policed environments (Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol), while also ending up in a holiday camp at one point (Delta and the Bannermen). There’s some really great, dynamic action in these stories; this is, for instance, the era where we see the Doctor’s companion smash up a Dalek with a baseball bat.

The Doctor himself has a lot to do with the improved quality: Sylvester McCoy is my third-favourite classic Doctor behind Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and I would have liked to see him in more adventures. He has a dignified, gentlemanly air that goes well with his outfit; he can be eccentric, mischievous and mysterious as the Doctor should be; but when things get serious, he’s forceful enough to take control of a situation, and has no small amount of cunning. Ace, meanwhile, is easily my favourite classic-series companion. She was really fun, endearing and energetic, acting like the classic 80s/90s teenager without taking it to annoying levels, loving to blow things up, and always getting stuck in with the action (see the aforementioned Dalek-baseball bat scene). Plus, anybody who wears a jacket with Space Shuttle mission patches on it is alright by me.

My Favourite Seventh Doctor Stories: Delta and the Bannermen, Remembrance of the Daleks

My Least Favourite Seventh Doctor Story: As with the Third Doctor, I don’t feel that there are any real stinkers in the Seventh Doctor’s era. The one I personally liked least was The Curse of Fenric, as I found it rather confusing with regards to Ace’s backstory (I first watched it out of order) and the Doctor referring to past engagements with an enemy whom the audience had never actually met before. There are good things about it, but it’s not a story that lends itself well to jumping straight in.

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Crew Dragon Demo-2!

On 21st July 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre, bringing the 135th and final Space Shuttle mission to a close, and leaving the United States with no way to send astronauts into orbit aside from purchasing seats on the Russian Soyuz. This Wednesday, if all goes well, that is finally going to change. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be taking off from Launch Complex 39A in Florida, carrying human beings for the first time.

The Crew Dragon’s development is part of the Commercial Crew Program, whereby private companies – specifically SpaceX and Boeing – have developed spacecraft to carry US astronauts to the International Space Station on NASA’s behalf. Boeing’s spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, made its first test flight in December 2019: it both reached space and returned to Earth safely, but failed to enter the correct orbit to rendezvous with the ISS. SpaceX, meanwhile, has been successfully sending unmanned cargo vessels to the ISS since 2012. In March 2019, the Crew Dragon made its first orbital test flight, Demo-1, which couldn’t have gone more smoothly: the spacecraft, carrying a dummy named Ripley and a plush toy Earth, docked with the ISS and then splashed down in one piece.

Unfortunately, the already-delayed program suffered a major setback the following month, when the Demo-1 spacecraft was destroyed in an explosion while testing its abort system. There would be no crewed launch in 2019, but following a successful in-flight abort test in January, SpaceX is at last ready to go. Onboard the Crew Dragon will be astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both of whom have two Space Shuttle missions under their belts. (Hurley, incidentally, was the pilot of the last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135.) Hurley and Behnken are expected to reach the ISS the day after launch, and remain there for up to three months.

This is obviously very exciting: it marks another big step forward in space development, and it’s the first time within my own lifetime that the United States are launching a new crewed spacecraft. But I expect I’ll be feeling nervous watching the launch too. The safety systems have undergone plenty of tests, and the Falcon 9 rocket has an excellent reliability record – but spacecraft always carries an element of risk, and watching this launch with the knowledge that lives are on the line is going to be a little tense.

Launch is scheduled for 4:33pm EDT – that’s 9:33pm in the UK. Shortly after launch, it may be possible to see the Crew Dragon passing overhead from the UK, west to east – I’m not sure if it’ll be too light at my own latitude, but you never know.

Good luck to SpaceX and Crew Dragon Demo-2!

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Apollo 13: 50 Years On

Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 13, which launched on 11th April 1970, intended as the third manned mission to land on the Moon. Its commander, Jim Lovell, would be the first man to fly in space four times and the first to go to the Moon twice. Accompanying him were rookie astronauts Jack Swigert and Fred Haise; Swigert was a last-minute replacement for the original command module pilot, Ken Mattingly, who had been grounded after being exposed to German measles. After two successful lunar landings in 1969, public interest in the Apollo program had diminished all too quickly, and a TV broadcast by the crew did not appear on any networks.

That would abruptly change 55 hours and 54 minutes into the flight, when Apollo 13 was 210,000 miles from Earth. A simple maintenance procedure – turning on a fan to stir the contents of the service module’s Oxygen Tank No. 2 – caused the tank to explode, crippling the command and service module and depriving the spacecraft of both oxygen and electricity. Now fighting for their lives, the astronauts powered down the command module and moved into the lunar module, using its engine to put them on a trajectory to loop around the Moon and return to Earth. For four days, through the efforts and improvisation of thousands of people on the ground, the resources of the lunar module – intended to support two men for two days – were stretched to their limit. And in the end, it all worked out: on 17th April, Lovell, Swigert and Haise splashed down in their command module, at the end of what would become known as “a successful failure”.

Apollo 13 remains one of the most enduring space-related stories in history; indeed, twenty-five years later, it became the subject of a successful film, which remains my second-favourite film of all time. It’s simply a great story that lends itself very well to a structured re-telling: starting out with a journey viewed by the public as routine, and the number 13 providing a little ominous foreshadowing in hindsight, it leads into stirring themes of survival and overcoming adversity through spectacular ingenuity and team effort. The film, which is largely faithful to the real events, contains many lines which can be applied to problem-solving situations, such as “Let’s work the problem, people – let’s not make things worse by guessing” and “I don’t care about what anything was designed to do – I care about what it can do!

A lot of improvisation based on engineering knowledge went into bringing Lovell, Swigert and Haise back to Earth alive, as well as the skills, experience and cool heads of the astronauts themselves. It’s interesting to note, however, that some of the ideas applied had been experimented with well before Apollo 13, not necessarily with this exact scenario in mind, but just in case – as detailed in this article,“Apollo 13, We Have A Solution”. There was some useful information that had only been acquired by chance: for example, in his lecture in Pontefract in 2015, Jim Lovell mentioned that the best prior indication that the command module’s guidance unit would still work after a period of cold exposure, had come from one such unit still working after an engineer accidentally left it in his car during a freezing night.

I also find it interesting how the actual oxygen tank explosion itself was caused by a series of small and apparently insignificant errors all coming together to create a serious problem. First, Oxygen Tank No. 2 was dropped a short distance before it was installed in the service module, causing just enough of a shift in the tubing that when oxygen was later pumped into the tank for a test, it couldn’t be drained away again. Second, a thermostat inside the tank was out of date, built to operate at a lower voltage than the rest of the Apollo spacecraft. When the tank was heated to boil the oxygen inside away following the test, the thermostat should have kept the temperature from rising above 80 degrees Fahrenheit; instead, the high voltage caused it to fail, and the unchecked heaters brought the temperature up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Third, the temperature gauge for the tank only went up to 85 degrees, so nobody knew what was happening at the time. Teflon insulation covering electrical wires inside the tank was damaged by the heating, leading to the explosion on the actual flight. It was a perfect demonstration of why Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, contains a chapter called “Sweat the Small Stuff”.

If you would like to learn more, I strongly recommend the book Apollo 13 (formerly titled Lost Moon) by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, which provides plenty of details and extra moments of tension that the film had to leave out. The second series of the BBC podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon has also been covering Apollo 13, including interviews with the people involved.

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My First Half Marathon!

Half Marathon

Last Sunday, I was supposed to be running my first half marathon in Blackpool. But then Covid-19 happened. The event was put back to September, and various options were offered to those who had signed up. The new date happened to be on the same day as this year’s Preston 10K, and I didn’t want to miss that; for that reason, and the fact that I was already partway through my training program, I elected to run the half marathon virtually, doing it in my own time and submitting the result to the event organisers at a later date. (The Preston 10K, incidentally, was later put back itself.) And given how I had already laid out my training program to lead up to the original date, why not do it on that particular day?

In the weeks leading up to the run, I was pleased at how I was able to get into running nine or ten miles at the weekends. For this first attempt, my target was simply to finish in less than two hours, so I would be safe with an average pace of nine minutes per mile. On my long runs, however, I found I could comfortably maintain 8:40 per mile, so that became my hoped-for pace for the big run. Unfortunately, while I can generally rely on running to make me feel good, the training runs could sometimes be stressful experiences due to the two-metre social distancing rules. We’ve been having a long spell of good weather in England this month to coincide with the lockdown, and I would often find lots of other pedestrians making the most of their permitted period of daily exercise, whom I would keep having to dodge in whatever space was available. So when planning where to go for the half marathon, I chose a nice, open route where social distancing could be maintained easily, and also decided to go early in the morning when there would be fewer people around.

When the big day arrived, the weather was perfect: mostly bright with scattered cloud cover, mild but not chilly, and only a little wind. At 7:30am, having allowed time for my early breakfast to go down, I got my gear on, started both my app and my running playlist, and I was off. The plan was to run about 4.5 miles in one direction, turn around and come back, then do a loop around the block to make up the last four miles or so. It was hard to resist going too fast to begin with, and it took me a few miles to settle into my intended pace. As usually happens, it also took some time to properly warm up and get the endorphins circulating. By the five-mile mark, I was at my optimum and feeling like I could keep running forever. It hardly mattered that I was running alone; in fact, in the sunshine, surrounded by trees and with hardly anyone else about, it was all very pleasant.

At ten miles, the feeling of invincibility had faded. I felt increasingly conscious of the fact that my leg muscles were tired and my fuel gauge was getting low. Telling myself that there was only a few more miles to do, I kept going. I was focussed, concentrating on forward movement, fighting against the force of resistance creeping into my mind. I’d now been running for longer than I’d ever done before; in the state I was in, I could barely remember a time before I started running. In place of the cheering spectators that would have been present at the actual event, having my favourite songs to listen to certainly helped to keep pushing me.

Then the app reported that I had run thirteen miles. Just a little more…and then came the words, “Workout Complete.” Victory! (And with an average pace of exactly 8:40 per mile!) With that, I took a selfie and walked unsteadily home for some fruit and Lucozade.

When my long training runs had been going so well, I had felt very confident and wondered just how far I could push myself in the long term. I was sure I’d try a full marathon at some point in the future, but would that be enough? Ultimately, you can’t know where you’re comfortable drawing the line until you’ve reached the next milestone and found out how it feels. At the moment that I completed this half marathon, I was exhausted and couldn’t imagine doing a full one – but then, I probably couldn’t imagine doing a half marathon after my first 10K. I certainly intend to run more half marathons, and I’ll see how those make me feel. For now, I’ll be happy to go back to more casual running, working on my 5K and 10K PBs for whenever the events start up again.

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On Choosing A Film To Watch

I try to pick and watch a film I haven’t seen before regularly, at least once every two weeks. The trouble is, sometimes I just can’t decide what to watch. I know I want to watch something, but nothing on my list of unwatched films really feels right at that moment. The last time that this happened, I started reflecting on my film-watching habits.

My ‘to-watch’ list has been constructed from a variety of sources, including different ‘Best Of’ lists, and recommendations from friends and social media. But some films have been on there for so long without me getting round to them that I can’t remember why I put them on there to begin with. People change with time, and I suppose I’ve outgrown the mindset that I need to work my way through a selection of certain films before I die. While I have been pleasantly surprised plenty of times with how much I loved a film from one of these lists (e.g. Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation), there were others that I just didn’t get at all (e.g. Annie Hall, Raging Bull). Meanwhile, there are a few popular and highly-rated films that I don’t expect I’ll ever watch because they’re not suited to my tastes, like The Exorcist. Because I’m not a professional film critic, I can pick and choose what films I see, and life’s too short to waste on films that I don’t expect to like – but how do I know for sure unless I try?

I’ve found myself wishing for some sort of algorithm where I can enter my favourite films and get a selection of recommendations. But – as is probably the case for most people – my favourite films don’t have a lot in common. Trying to do a breakdown of elements I like to see, like I did for my favourite novels, isn’t as simple with films. There are of course particular directors I really like, such as James Cameron and Christopher Nolan; particular actors, like Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger; and particular composers, like James Horner and Hans Zimmer. But not everything that those people have been involved with is a favourite of mine, because each is just one part of a whole involving a great many people. A novel is words on a page put together by one person (with some help from editors); a film is the product of a long, complicated recipe consisting of directing, acting, music, cinematography, special effects and much else. Until you watch it, it’s hard to predict just from the ingredients whether a film is going to inspire that special feeling in you that makes it a favourite, even if it looks similar to one you love on paper.

I think I need a more relaxed approach to choosing films. In the old days, I would come across a new film either from browsing the movie channels on TV or seeing an advert for a new release at the cinema; in the latter case, I’d read a few online reviews from critics before deciding whether to see it. In more recent years, social media has become a new source of recommendations; following the blogs, tweets and YouTube videos of film enthusiasts can lead you to discovering films you might not have even heard of otherwise, and when you become familiar enough with their likes and dislikes, you can get an idea of how well their tastes and perspectives tend to correlate with yours. So I think right now, when choosing a new film to watch, I should embrace fresh recommendations and put the more stale items on my ‘to-watch’ list to one side.

Another thing I’ve thought about, however, is that in the pursuit of watching fresh films, I’ve been neglecting old ones that I previously enjoyed but haven’t seen for a while – so I want to go back to some of them too. I can at least be confident I’ll get some pleasure out of them.

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Classic Who: The Sixth Doctor Era (1984-1986)

sixth-doctor-who

As with Peter Capaldi many years later, Colin Baker – aged 40 at the time of casting – had already appeared in Doctor Who before he was cast in the title role; he was in the Fifth Doctor adventure Arc of Infinity, playing an unfriendly Time Lord guard named Maxil. Following his regeneration, the Sixth Doctor’s resemblance to Maxil was never explained or even acknowledged; but if the Twelfth Doctor was given the face of Caecilius to remind him to always save people whenever he could, presumably the Sixth Doctor took Maxil’s face as a reminder to be a prat. Previous Doctors might have displayed arrogance, rudeness and a patronising attitude from time to time, but the Sixth Doctor took these qualities to a whole new level.

After being properly introduced in the final adventure of Season 21, The Twin Dilemma, in March 1984, the Sixth Doctor set off into the universe dressed in a painfully garish coat, and accompanied by his long-suffering companion, Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant). His first full season saw the introduction of a new villain from the Doctor’s race, an amoral scientist called the Rani (Kate O’Mara); meanwhile, Patrick Troughton made his third and final return to the show as the Second Doctor, accompanied by Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon. When the series ended, however, there was no guarantee that Doctor Who would ever return at all: ratings were down, the BBC was looking for ways to save money, and the BBC One controller at the time, Michael Grade, was no fan of the show anyway.

Sixth Doctor 2

Ultimately, after being put on hiatus for eighteen months, Doctor Who did return. This new fourteen-episode season consisted of a story arc called ‘The Trial of a Time Lord‘, in which the Doctor was put on trial by the Time Lords for his crimes of interference, with a new character called the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) serving as prosecutor. Contained within this framing device were three more typical stories of the Doctor’s adventures, being submitted as evidence at the trial. The end of the second story, Mindwarp, showed Peri being abandoned when the Doctor was forcibly summoned for the trial, and then apparently killed. (The finale revealed that this was faked by the Valeyard; Peri was in fact alive and reasonably happy in her new home.) For the third story, Terror of the Vervoids, the Doctor drew upon evidence from his own future, leading to the abrupt introduction of his next companion, Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford). In what might be considered a prelude to River Song, the Doctor – and the audience – would first meet Mel when she had already known him for some time; their first encounter from her point of view would never actually be shown onscreen.

It was eventually revealed that the Valeyard was actually the Doctor himself – or rather, a manifestation of the Doctor’s dark side, created between his twelfth and thirteenth incarnations. (So would that be between Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, if John Hurt’s War Doctor is taken into account? Does David Tennant count as one incarnation, even though his partial regeneration in Series 4 still counted towards the Doctor’s original limit of twelve? Whatever: wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.) The Valeyard’s true intention in prosecuting the Doctor was to both eliminate his lighter side and steal his remaining regenerations – but of course, the Doctor came out on top, was forgiven by the Time Lords, and headed off in the TARDIS with Mel. The final episode of the season, which aired on 6th December 1986, would turn out to be the last regular appearance of the Sixth Doctor.

The Trial of a Time Lord had not won over BBC management, and Michael Grade was only willing to renew Doctor Who for another season if a new Doctor was brought in. Thus, Colin Baker found himself being dismissed in-between seasons, having had the shortest tenure as the Doctor up to that point. Understandably, he was unwilling to come back and film a regeneration scene in the following season – so his replacement, Sylvester McCoy, had to spend his first few moments onscreen portraying the unconscious Sixth Doctor, concealing his face and wearing a curly blonde wig.

My Thoughts

As if anticipating how his new attitude would be received, the Sixth Doctor ends his first adventure by telling Peri (and by extension, the audience), “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not.” Not even the first female Doctor, polarising as she was, felt it necessary to make such a declaration – and it’s certainly not the way for a hero to endear himself to his audience. Sure enough, I couldn’t really warm to this Doctor, who took his anti-hero traits well past engaging levels, to be just plain unpleasant. He does get a little nicer with time – or maybe you just get more used to him – but by then it’s already too late. This is nothing against Colin Baker, as this approach to the character was more the writers’ and producers’ fault than his; I’ve listened to one of his later Big Finish audio adventures, Peri and the Piscon Paradox, in which Six is considerably more agreeable.

We don’t get a chance to see Nicola Bryant’s real potential, either; through a combination of being around this awful Doctor who constantly puts her down, and getting thrown into terrible situations by herself, Peri Brown is stressed and miserable for most of her time onscreen, which isn’t any more appealing to watch than the Doctor himself. Then, for the last two adventures, Mel drops into the picture. Apparently Mel is not one of the more popular companions among the Doctor Who fandom, but after Peri, I found her to be a breath of fresh air; she is much better at taking the Doctor’s behaviour in her stride and maintaining a perky attitude. Of course, it is weird and jarring how we don’t get a proper introduction to her; she’s just suddenly there in the TARDIS, encouraging the Doctor to exercise and offering him carrot juice.

Curiously, even though I wasn’t a fan of the Doctor or his companion for most of this era, I actually liked the stories themselves better than in the Fifth Doctor’s tenure: they were generally both more exciting and more memorable, ranging from social satire (Vengeance on Varos) to a murder mystery on a space liner (Terror of the Vervoids). However, the Trial of a Time Lord story arc wasn’t executed very well, with the brief interruptions of each story to return to the courtroom becoming irritating, and the whole framing device seeming needless until the ultimate conclusion.

My Favourite Sixth Doctor Stories: The Two Doctors, Timelash, Terror of the Vervoids

My Least Favourite Sixth Doctor StoryThe Twin Dilemma: The story itself, featuring annoying twins and a ridiculous slug monster villain, is bad enough, but it’s the Doctor himself who is the worst thing about it. Actions like trying to strangle Peri, and then force her to live in eternal solitude with him, are put down to post-regeneration psychosis but are still far from heroic – and in other ways, like constantly belittling Peri, the Doctor starts as he means to go on. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the Sixth Doctor’s leaves a permanently bad taste in the mouth.

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Life in Lockdown

Today I thought I would share how I’ve been getting along in the current COVID-19 pandemic and the government restrictions that have been put in place. Some of it has been relatively simple, and some of it more difficult.

I appreciate that I have it easier than a lot of people. For one thing, I don’t have any children or other dependents to worry about, and for another, I’m able to work from home; I’ve even been able to come up with ideas on how to rework the procedures of duties that would normally require face-to-face meetings. As I have Asperger’s, I always prefer to have a routine, so having to take working from home on a day-by-day basis at the start caused some anxiety; however, once it became clear that things would operate this way for the next few weeks at least, I was able to settle into the new routine.

I’ve been able to keep myself occupied – for one thing, I learned a coin trick this weekend – and I already have a list of things to do or reflect upon over the upcoming Easter break. I’ve been taking advantage of my one permitted period of exercise per day, usually either by having a run, or going for a little walk after work on non-running days – making sure to stick to quiet areas and maintain social distancing, of course. On Sunday afternoon, in the pleasant weather, I had a walk up and down my garden while listening to an audiobook; even a small dose of fresh air was nice. I had planned to run my first half-marathon later this month, but naturally the event has been postponed; since the new date happened to be on the same day as my favourite 10K event, which I don’t want to miss, I decided to take the option of running the half-marathon virtually in my own time. I’ll still have done it, after all. In the meantime, I’m staying fit until the time is right.

The main problem is social contact, or lack thereof. Although I’m an introvert by nature, I still like having the opportunity to talk to people. Right now, I can’t go and see my family, and I certainly won’t be taking the social benefits of being in the office for granted in the future. There have been times this week when it’s felt very depressing. Some things have helped to make me feel better, though: speaking to family members through FaceTime rather than calling or messaging, and being reminded that I can still turn to others for support (even if it’s remotely) and we’re all in this together. One evening, my work did a remote social gathering session, which was a lot of fun.

Going out for the weekly shop has been quite stressful, too. Before the restrictions, there were a couple of weeks where panic-buying and stockpiling had left shelves almost empty of various items I wanted, such as tins and cereal. In the past fortnight, with only a certain number of people being allowed into the local supermarket at a time, item availability is better – though some are still in relatively short supply – but there are other problems. Having to queue to get in isn’t fun, though the worst is that it’s hard to maintain social distancing in a supermarket, particularly when other customers don’t seem as concerned about it as you.

The pandemic has obviously impacted all of our lives in a significant way – even those of us fortunate enough to not yet be ill or have loved ones who are – and I find myself wondering how we will look back at this years from now, and tell the next generation about it. What sort of books will be written about this time? What stories will it inspire? Having everyday life be turned upside down by something so serious has certainly provided a new perspective on things; when I was writing my last post on Doctor Who Series 12, and reflecting on the things that members of the fandom had complained about, I found myself thinking how utterly trivial all of that seemed now.

I expect there will be some pretty big celebrations once something resembling normal life can resume – whenever that may be – and when I can go back to the office, and see my family properly again, I’ll have a new appreciation of how wonderful it really is.

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Doctor Who – Series 12: Final Thoughts

Doctor Who S12 2

Watching Series 12 of Doctor Who hasn’t always given me happy feelings – and that’s mostly not because of what was onscreen. After every episode, there would always be plenty of comments from people on social media, and a great many of them were complaints and declarations that Chris Chibnall and the “woke” BBC had killed the show forever. Even in previous seasons that aired after social media had gained significant influence in everyday life, I can’t remember such comments bothering me on the same level. Is it that there were really more negative comments this time around, because significantly more people weren’t happy, or is that I’ve been paying more attention? Given that, apparently, fans have finding things to complain about since William Hartnell left the show, maybe it’s just more visible now. Whatever the case, it’s hard to ignore so much negativity and not let it influence your thoughts, and I found myself starting each episode with at least a little trepidation. I couldn’t just stop looking at Twitter since there’s plenty of non-Doctor Who-related content there I want to check out, but as time passed, I tried not to let it bother me and just judge the show as I found it. Ultimately, I just want to watch Doctor Who and, hopefully, enjoy it.

While I was mostly entertained by Series 12, I’m not going to pretend it was the best series of Doctor Who ever. Like Series 11, it didn’t offer anything spectacular – and it ended up being weaker by virtue of having at least one episode that could be called flat-out bad instead of merely lacklustre. The overall feel was largely very similar to Series 11, yet there were also episodes like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and Praxeus where I felt like they were trying to capture the less gritty atmosphere of older eras, which I didn’t mind at all.

And while Series 11 was just a series of individual adventures, Series 12 tries to have an arc as most previous seasons have done, involving the return of the Master (played delightfully by Sacha Dhawan), the second destruction of Gallifrey, the “final” war against the Cybermen, and the revelation of the Timeless Child. While this arc made more sense than, say, the one about the Silence in Series 5 and 6, and it’s allowed to leave some gaps to maintain some mystery, it still didn’t provide adequate payoff for everything it hinted at. This is particularly true with regards to Fugitive of the Judoon, which is still a good episode on its own, but at this point, frustrating too. The return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness is basically wasted on a small amount of exposition; and after such a huge revelation of there being another Doctor that Thirteen doesn’t remember, the Ruth-Doctor only makes one more brief appearance in the finale. We have to mostly infer things about her from what we learn there, and hope that she comes back in Series 13.

Meanwhile, I’m honestly still okay with the Timeless Child. I find the concept interesting and won’t mind seeing how it gets explored further in the future. With there being so many gaps in the Doctor’s backstory already, it doesn’t strike me as an jarring, blatant violation of canon like, say, the reveal of a previously-unmentioned third Dumbledore brother in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald did. Perhaps that’s also because Doctor Who has been around for decades and worked upon by many different people who tried different approaches to the central concept, with mixed success.

Jodie Whittaker gets to show off her range a bit more this series, as the Thirteenth Doctor is put under more pressure, struggling to maintain her previous optimism and being forced to face the more difficult side of being a centuries-old master of time. Sadly, Graham, Ryan and Yaz have not been improved upon since Series 11. They’re all pleasant to watch and work well as a group, but they still feel hollow. If anything, they’ve gone backward: they get little in the way of development, and some things from Series 11, like Ryan’s dyspraxia, have just been forgotten about. I don’t feel able to appreciate them as people, the way I did with the likes of Donna or Clara. The closest thing that any of them has to a proper role in the team is Graham providing comic relief; when it comes to saving the day, they just fit in where the story needs them.

Compare this to another three-person team of companions: Ian, Barbara and Susan. Combined with the Doctor, they had a proper team structure, one that was easy to understand as it resembled a traditional family: father, mother, daughter, and grumpy old grandad. They had defined personalities and values which meant they reacted differently to different situations, such as when Barbara wanted to change history by persuading the Aztecs to abandon human sacrifice. They were each able to fill a role when the situation called for it: Ian handled physical confrontations, Barbara was best at integrating and making useful alliances, and Susan was best at…getting captured and needing to be rescued, I guess. We just don’t get enough of that from the Fam.

Ranking

Previously, I’ve compared the series’s average score to those of other series to see how it ranks, but that doesn’t really feel appropriate anymore: it’s been a while since I’ve watched some of those other series, and undoubtedly my standards and what I look for will have shifted, as well as the atmosphere of the show itself having changed a lot. Going by my gut, I would put Series 12 in the lower third: definitely better than Series 10, maybe better than Series 2, probably on par with Series 3 and 7.

So here’s my episode ranking:
01. Praxeus
02. Fugitive of the Judoon
03. The Haunting of Villa Diodati
04. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
05. Spyfall Part 2
06. The Timeless Children
07. Ascension of the Cybermen
08. Spyfall Part 1
09. Can You Hear Me?
10. Orphan 55

Worst episode: To test a theory, I ran a Twitter poll asking if the worst episode of Series 12 was Orphan 55 or anything else. 10 out of 11 respondents went with Orphan 55, supporting my theory that it really stood out as the season’s lowest moment. There was a slow, dull plot; uninteresting, underdeveloped side characters; and an old lady constantly whining for “BENNNIIIII!” But worst of all was the message about climate change which, while unquestionably a subject that needs attention, was painfully shoved in with no subtlety whatsoever – the Doctor practically breaks the fourth wall, like in William Hartnell’s Christmas episode, to preach to the audience. That’s not how Doctor Who, which is first and foremost an entertainment show, should be commentating on current issues. Rather than inspiring people to act against climate change, Orphan 55 felt like it was actively trying to prove the haters right.

Best episode: Praxeus was, in some ways, the anti-Orphan 55, going right where the other episode went wrong. It had an environmental message, but one that was better integrated into the story; it had several side characters, but they were more sympathetic and with believable arcs; and instead of being boring, it delivered an exciting adventure that felt more traditional for the show.

So what about Series 13? There are indications that both Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole will be leaving the show; assuming that Mandip Gill stays, this could either give Yaz more room to grow, or allow a new companion (preferably just one) to enter the mix and stir things up in an interesting way. Obviously, I’d like some further elaboration on things that were raised in this series, and a more substantial return by Captain Jack wouldn’t go amiss. And maybe, while it’s being broadcast, I actually will avoid looking at Twitter. It’s not likely to do any good.

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