Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Doctor Who - Review of the New Series Opener

Doctor Who is back on TV, with series 35 — or, as it's officially known, series 91. I've been a fan since the first episode, back in 1963. I still remember settling down as a nine-year-old to watch the new show with the exceedingly weird title sequence. It's changed almost beyond recognition in nearly 52 years since then, yet managed at the same time to remain exactly the same. It's a rare trick.

The new series (whatever you call it) started with a two-part story, so I thought I'd wait till I'd seen both parts to give a reaction. But, before we start, let's get an extremely subtle warning out of the way:


So, if you haven't had a chance to watch it yet, bookmark this page and come back when you have.

Last year was all about establishing Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor2, and, while the standard of the stories was varied, from the excellent finale down the highly questionable Kill the Moon, Capaldi was extremely impressive in his simultaneously familiar and different interpretation of the character.

This year, he starts as Doctor-in-residence and needs great stories to continue making his mark. The first episode, The Magician's Apprentice3, started with a bang: a young boy caught in a minefield in a long, dirty war is offered help by the Doctor, who's landed by accident and has no idea which planet he's on. When the child gives his name, the Doctor realises this is Davros, who'll go on to create the Daleks.

Thus, before the titles we're plunged straight into the story's main theme, a continuation of a moral dialogue the Doctor's been having on and off since 1975. That year, one of the all-time-great Doctor Who stories, Genesis of the Daleks, chronicled how the Doctor failed to prevent Davros in his creation. Faced with the opportunity of destroying all the embryonic Daleks, he hesitates and asks:

Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?4

Now, with those words come back to haunt him, the Doctor has three options for the child Davros: save him, kill him, or leave him to his fate. It's not till the story's final scene that we find out the choice he'll ultimately makes.

The heart of the story is a series of scenes between the Doctor and the adult Davros, last seen in 2008, in which they continue their debate about the ethics of the Daleks. Davros's position has always been that compassion is weakness and only through strength and ruthlessness can the Daleks survive, while the Doctor continues to argue the case for compassion. Taunted by Davros that "[Compassion] will kill you in the end," he retorts, "I wouldn't die any other way."

Now, though, Davros is dying and seems not only to be questioning his position but even wanting the Doctor's approval. It's all a ruse, of course — this is Davros, after all — and the Doctor seems caught in the snare of his compassion. But this is the Doctor, too, and he's one step ahead.

It's great to see ethical debate at the heart of things, as it was in so many of the great Doctor Who stories of the past, but this is anything but a talky story. Missy is back (and yes, we do find out how she survived her death last year) forming an unlikely alliance with Clara to find and help the Doctor.

In her female form, Missy seems better able to express her very contradictory feelings about the Doctor — constantly trying to kill him, she insists, doesn't alter the fact that he's her best friend and always has been. She talks constantly about memories of their childhood (just as we also get a glimpse of Davros's childhood) although she hints that not everything she tells Clara is true. Certainly referring to when the Doctor was a little girl seems implausible, in the light of last year's Listen.

Of course, Missy too has her own agenda, and in the end she almost succeeds in tricking the Doctor into killing Clara. As in Logopolis, any apparent alliance with the Master/Missy isn't going to last a moment longer than s/he chooses.

There's a lot else packed into the story: planes stuck in the sky, UNIT headquarters, a space bar containing many familiar aliens, a strange mediaeval scene with Doctor playing an electric guitar (the one weak section of the story, in my opinion), Dalek "sewers" containing not-quite-dead Daleks that the Doctor brings to life (setting up my favourite line, when he tells the Supreme Dalek "Your sewers are revolting") and Clara pretending to be a Dalek.

This last is interesting, since the first time we met Clara, in Asylum of the Daleks, she actually was a Dalek, so this brings her full circle. The whole process of pretending to be a Dalek is radically different from when Ian did it in The Daleks or Rebec in Planet of the Daleks, but that makes sense. The Daleks have been upgraded, redesigned and re-bioengineered so often since then, both by Davros and the Emperor5, that I wouldn't expect their mechanisms to be the same.

Clara's "training session" by Missy is fun and makes some intriguing suggestions about the Daleks (their guns are fired by emotion, and shouting exterminate is their way of "reloading) but what we learn from it also turns out to be crucial.

Perhaps the most arresting figure in the story, apart from Davros and Missy, is the wonderfully sinister Colony Sarff, Davros's messenger and bodyguard, whom the Doctor describes as "a nest of snakes in a dress". A scary-looking figure in its assembled form, it can collapse into a mass of individual snakes, each of which appear to have an equal part in the whole ("We are a democracy," it explains at one point). It's regrettable that Colony Sarff is destroyed at the end — but maybe there are more of its kind out there.

The whole story is a an old fan's delight, full of back-references. The ones relating to Davros are the most important, but there are others. When Clara, Missy and Kate Stewart of UNIT are trying to work out where/when the Doctor might be hiding, they identify a whole series of historical locations where he's been. These include San Martino (The Masque of Mandragora), Troy (The Myth Makers), "multiples for New York" (The Chase, Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, The Angels Take Manhattan) and "three possible versions of Atlantis" — presumably those he visited in The Underwater Menace and The Time Monster, together with the Atlantis Azal claimed to have destroyed in The Dæmons.

There's been some criticism of recent Doctor Who that the Doctor has often taken second place in the stories to whoever his companion was at the time. Personally, I don't feel this has gone too far, and anyway it was by no means unknown in the classic series for stories to focus more on the companions. This was especially true in the early days, when we were seeing much more from Ian and Barbara's perspective than from the Doctor's. Still, it's good to have a high-class story where, although Clara has plenty to do, the focus is solidly on the Doctor. And on ethics, which have always been at the heart of Doctor Who.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of series 35.

1 Series 9 of Doctor Who was broadcast in 1972, starting with Day of the Daleks and finishing with The Time Monster. This is the 35th series overall.

2 Again, the numbering is questionable. What about the War Doctor? What about the Tenth Doctor Mark 2? For that matter, what about the Watcher, the Valyard, the Dream Lord…? Still, convention is convention.

3 Maybe it's just me being slow, but I still haven't worked out the rationale for either title in the two-parter. That doesn't spoil anything, though.

4 This and several other clips from past confrontations with Davros are played during the story. Personally, I'd prefer them to be left implicit, but I recognise not all viewers remember the classic stories as well as I do.

5 Assuming they're different, of course. The whole question of the identities of the various Dalek Emperors, of whom Davros was at least one, is rather complex.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

So What Is This Thing Called Point of View?

To the novice entering into the esoteric world of writers discussing writing, few things are more confusing than point of view. We tend to talk as if everyone knows what we mean by point of view (known as POV to its friends) and throw around enigmatic terms like "limited" and "omni".

At its simplest, POV is about whether the main character of a story is referred to as I, you or he/she (or conceivably it), using the grammatical concept of person. Referring to the speaker is known as first person, referring to the person or thing addressed is second person, and referring to anyone or anything else is third person. In some languages, like Latin, this is built into the grammar, and the persons have to be used in the correct order in the sentence.1

Most stories are written in first or third, with second being kept mainly for experimental work or choose-your-own-adventure books. It isn't easy to do well, though it can be highly effective in the hands of a master, such as in Italo Calvino's wonderful novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveller.

There's more to POV, though, than which person it's in. It can, quite separately from this, be limited or omniscient, deep or shallow, distant or immersive. And it's important to remember that these aren't absolutes, but sliding scales where specific stories (or even specific scenes in a story) are defined by positions on numerous axes.

It's also important to bear in mind that none of these POVs is wrong. Some are unfashionable and will be much harder sells to editors or agents (second person is certainly one of these) and some are easier than others to get wrong. All POVs, though, suit specific stories can be written well, and if so are perfectly valid.

First Person

First person is increasingly popular, especially in YA fiction, although it's never been uncommon. There's a popular idea that a first-person story has to represent a supposed memoir by the character, or that they're telling the tale to someone. This is certainly an option, but by no means the only one.

First person narratives can range from immersive to distant. In the former case, the character is essentially passing on the experiences as they're happening, and will only write about what they're experiencing or thinking at the time.2 It's becoming quite common now to reinforce that with present tense, though past tense narrative is familiar enough not to feel wrong in such a context — I think of past tense in this situation as events being processed a second or two after they've happened.

At the other extreme, the character can be looking back on past events, whether writing, telling or just remembering it. This sacrifices the immediacy of the immersive approach, but it allows the narrator to reflect on their actions and introduce elements of the story or setting they couldn't have known at the time.

There are positions in between these extremes, and it's also not essential to write an entire story from the same position. In At An Uncertain Hour, for instance, I used the technique of switching between action the main character is immersed in as it happens and memories of his past life, written in a more distant style. I'm by no means the only author who's written like this — check out Iain Banks for a master of the technique.

Third Person

Third person, where every character is referred to as he, she or it, is perhaps the most natural style of storytelling, but it comes in three broad forms: objective, omniscient and limited.

Limited third is perhaps the most popular POV today, although its popularity is maybe exaggerated somewhat by authors and editors. This is where, in any given scene, everything is filtered through one specific person's perceptions and inner thoughts. The greatest sin, if (but only if) you're writing in limited third, is head-hopping, where the POV changes from one paragraph to the next, or even within the same paragraph. Even this can be done effectively, but only if it's deliberately calculated for a specific effect, rather than to make life easier for the author.

The POV may be limited, but that can be handled in a number of ways. It can be deep and immersive, to a point where it's almost indistinguishable from immersive first person, or the "camera" can move out to show us details that aren't being directly noticed by the character. At its shallowest, for instance, you might describe the character's appearance as if from outside — without resorting to the dreaded mirror scene.

That level more or less merges into omniscient, which is where the POV is the author (or at least an authorial presence) who can show us whatever is necessary to tell the story, including the thoughts of multiple characters, general facts about the setting, and pithy comments about life, the universe and everything. It's distinct from head-hopping, though, because the revelations made by an omniscient narrator are made from outside rather than inside, reminding us that this isn't the character telling us what they're thinking, but the narrator knowing it.

The most extreme omniscient approach is the storyteller style, where the author is a direct presence addressing the reader. This is particularly common in a traditional style of children's story, where the author might interrupt the narrative to say something like "I expect you're wondering how he's going to escape from this. Well…"

Occasionally, the omniscient POV can also be a character within the story, usually playing a minor role, who either for specific reasons or just as a device has access to all the necessary information about the story and its setting. This character can be presented as either first or third person.

Objective is superficially a little like omniscient, since the POV is the author, but where omniscient is an active POV, objective is passive. Here, we're only told what can be seen and heard, not what any character makes of it or what they're thinking. Not much fiction is written this way nowadays, partly because it's incredibly difficult to write it effectively (I know, I've tried) but the mediaeval Icelandic sagas3 handled it brilliantly, using it to give a kind of dead-pan insight into the behaviour of the characters by inference, not by revelation.

This doesn't mean that a writer has to choose one of these precise positions and stick with it fanatically. Many writers who use limited third, for instance, will vary the depth from scene to scene, depending on what's needed at the time. Others operate right on the edge between shallow limited third and omniscient, sometime straying to one side of the border, sometimes to the other — the Harry Potter books are an example of this. The key, as with so much in writing, is always to know precisely what you're doing and why. It's possible to make your variations seem natural, rather than careless.

Who Should Be Your POV?

Some stories can be told exclusively through one pair of eyes. This is the default for first person, and many limited third stories also don't need more than a single POV, if the story is about that person. Other stories aren't about any specific individual and need a wide range of viewpoints to show the reader everything that feeds into the edifice the author's constructing.

George R.R. Martin is one of the best-known authors using a POV cast of thousands, but many stories require three or four POVs to cover everything. These POVs (usually in limited third person, though multiple first person novels are found4, and even switching between first and third for different POVs) will change either at the beginning of a new chapter, or else at the beginning of a discrete scene within a chapter. The technique is completely different from head-hopping.

A common piece of advice in choosing which character stands as your POV for a scene, a chapter, an entire novel, is that it should be the person most involved in what happens. That's often good advice, but not always. Sometimes, the person most genuinely involved in a scene, in the true sense, may be standing back and watching events unfold. Someone else may take centre-stage, but this is the person whose motives and assumptions are being challenged by what happens, which will affect their role in the rest of the story.

An extreme case is when the story is most effectively told by an observer, giving us a separate mind to filter the action through. The best-known examples of this are Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Though not at all uninvolved, Watson stands a little back and provides us with the eyes to watch the enigma that is Holmes, while Carraway allows Fitzgerald to avoid having to reveal too much about Gatsby.

In the end, the choice of POV — the character, the pronoun used, the limit or omniscience, the immersion or the distance — is all about how to tell the story best, and that will be different every time. As it should be. The point of being a writer isn't to endlessly tell the same story.

1 This caused some problem for Henry VIII's minister Cardinal Wolsey, who grammatically but undiplomatically referred in his Latin letters to "ego et rex" (I and the king). This gave ammunition to those who accused him of arrogance.

2 In fact, there's a little wiggle-room here, since applying that too literally results in the extreme immersive first person style known as stream-of-consciousness — a valid approach, but one that isn't suitable for the majority of first person stories. As long as what you write is more or less in the moment, readers will normally ignore any slight discrepancy.

3 No, the sagas weren't oral tales told round the fire of a mead-hall. They were actually sophisticated literary works, produced by and for a surprisingly literate society.

4 Disclosure: I'm writing one myself at the moment, and finding the process fascinating.