The Black Archive: Love & Monsters

This piece originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in the Celestial Toyroom fanzine. 

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I remember the first time I saw Love & Monsters. This was back in 2012, when I was still a brand new Whovian racing through the Davies years. Lying on my sofa, under my little blanket, I absorbed everything. I knew this show would never let me go.

Love & Monsters was fun. That’s what I remember most. It made me smile. LINDA didn’t know the first thing about the Doctor, and neither did I. They were a bunch of hopeless nerds, and hey, same. I felt like I was right there with them, chasing the Doctor, trying to get a grip on what this whole space adventure lark was all about. I remember saying “I just saw one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time!” and “I’m gonna show this to everyone, it’s so good!”

The internet disagreed.

Strongly.

It turned out that the story was almost universally hated. Fans had felt themselves mocked by their own showrunner. And while I could see where they were coming from, I wanted to learn more.

So as my love for Doctor Who became a way of life, as I made my way through audios and books and comics and conventions, I kept looking back to Elton Pope’s adventure. I talked to a lot of fellow fans, to find out what made this episode such a big old jar of Marmite — why some people enjoy Love & Monsters, while others despise every moment of it.

Image (c) BBC
Image (c) BBC

For me, the episode was a game. Davies did everything he could to alienate the viewers. A story that wrong-footed us at every turn, a bit of cat-and-mouse between the showrunner and his fans — I thought it was marvellous! It reminded me of things like Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and Threepenny Novel, and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I saw the narrative as Davies poking fun at himself as well, presenting himself as just another one of those silly old LINDA-like Who fans for a laugh.

But as I dived in deeper, I started to better understand the discomfort. The portrayal of fans as gullible, ineffective stalkers. Uncomfortable questions of agency around Ursula’s transformation. Elton’s mum dying so that his own feelings could be explored. The tribal-coded mohawk, loincloth and cannibalist themes in the Abzorbaloff’s design. And I also realised that Davies could poke fun at himself all he liked, but that he wasn’t really in LINDA anymore — he’d already left that part of fandom for good. Maybe he’d even become more of an Abzorbaloff than an Elton, a super-fan lording over the Doctor’s life. Was it right for him to play these games with us? Was he holding the show’s regular format hostage, in a way? Did we really need 45 minutes of nerds sitting on old chairs and shaking tambourines, of Elton’s dancing and Jackie’s miniskirts and fart jokes?

Obverse Books offers a wonderful space for exploring those kinds of questions. The novel-length Black Archive dissertations treat each story with a mix of criticism, investigative spirit and plain old love for Doctor Who. So when Black Archive submissions opened up in 2017, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. I would become That Nerd Who Wrote A Book On Love & Monsters Of All Things.

I had a lot of fun doing the research, prodding at the episode’s Brechtian tropes: the alienation, the use of different perspectives, the contradictions in tone throughout the episode. I looked at the narrative structures of sci-fi, gross-out comedy and detective stories. I read up on the convergence culture of 21st century fandom: the way people flock together and bond by analysing what fascinates them. I dived into the social dynamics of it all, and the way fandom group efforts so often end up abused by those who want to be in charge of a franchise.

But I also saw the sheer power of fans reflected in the episode: from the most casual viewers, those who make Doctor Who part of their world just by watching it, to all the eager storytellers who became part of Who production with their own perspectives. And sitting in the middle of all that was William Grantham, the nine-year-old artist who made his own fan monster in a story for fans, about fans, created entirely by fans.

Compiling this book meant a journey into the world of, as Andrew Pixley once wrote, “dusty archives and wind-swept quarries pursuing that elusive piece in the jigsaw”. There’s so much depth to fan communities that we never really think about. I ended up exploring Marxist exchange value dynamics in fandom: the difference between production of fan works for our own in-group, and for some outsider in charge. I looked at media encoding and decoding: the intentions of the author, the perceptions of the audience, and everything that happens in between. The so-called ‘Death of the Author’ theory (the idea that the fans, not the creators, decide what every story is about) offered a beautiful way to explore LINDA’s own agency, as well as that of Love & Monsters’ viewer base.

I examined the moral economy of fandom: the ways in which fans use their passion, knowledge and experiences to become part of fan circles, and the reasons people like Elton end up sighing “it’s not his fault…” when their favourite obsessions disappoint them. I dug up Post-Formalist theories of narrative time dilation, in which the heroes get parked to make way for strange storytellers-du-jour. And I felt a surge of queer pride when Davies, in his Who’s Round interview with Toby Hadoke, called Ursula’s transformation a “gay metaphor”; a symbol of the way society often sees queer relationships as monstrous. Of course! Of course a woman stuck to a paving slab could stand in for being gay! It’s Doctor Who — anything goes!

Most of all, I found a wonderful community while writing this Black Archive. So many people came up to me to say how much they loved the episode. Sure, they could all see the awkwardness and camp, the disgusting rubber-suit monster, the fan characters becoming creepy stalkers, but they still adored the whole thing because it spoke to them. I made so many new friends who helped me with my investigation ‘n’ detection, and my book became a love letter to the comradery of Doctor Who fandom itself.

I hope my book will convince some people to look beyond Love & Monsters’ awkwardness. But even if they keep on hating the Marmite taste, I’m incredibly proud anyway to have contributed to the Black Archive range, and to be part of Obverse Books.

Because this is what we, the fans, do best. We get swept up by these stories, we scrape away the layers to see what’s hidden inside, and we write endlessly about everything we discover.

And, just like Elton, we don’t care what anyone thinks.

We love it.

~

The Black Archive on Love & Monsters is available from Obverse Books

Image (c) Obverse Books
Image (c) Obverse Books

 

 

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To Be Born: An Adventure In Sequential Mindfuckery

It was summer 2017 when Nate Bumber and Jim Mortimore almost simultaneously asked me: hey, do you wanna do a comic for this Unbound charity anthology thing?

We soon decided on a Benny story, an alternative take on Jim’s (already pretty alternative) Director’s Cut of Blood Heat. Our comic would see Benny, separated from the Doctor, trying to survive on an Earth ruled by Silurians.

I’d just bought a whole lot of watercolour pencils and was itching to try them out, so doing a high-detail, full-colour story really appealed to me.

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Drawing Benny was a lot of fun — and getting to design some nasty things for her to encounter even more so. I’m very much someone who’s into Who for the horror aspects of it all. Give me the gore, the fear, the desperation! The messier the better.

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Poor Benny. I adore her, of course. But sometimes life plonks you down on prehistoric Earth and puts you face-to-face with all these claws and scales and teeth…

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Since the comic “To Be Born” is an AU of an AU of a novel, in a book full of AUs, we could go literally anywhere. And oh boy, did we ever.

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Wanna see the full comic? Of course you do! “To Be Born” will be available as part of Unbound: Adventures in Time and Space for a very limited time only — until February 15th, 2019. Be sure to place your order before then! All proceeds will go to the Against Malaria Foundation.

And once you’ve read it, let me know what you think! 🙂

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Out Now: Sarah Jane Smith, Defending Earth!

“It’s too late,” the woman repeated. “We’re too late. Din’s, he’s…he’s dead too.”

“Jianna,” Sarah Jane whispered. “What happened to this place?” She swallowed. “To these people?”

“And Arren’s been taken and I’m alone and stuck with, with you, and I don’t know what you are and—”

“Jianna, please.” Sarah Jane’s heart hammered in her chest. She let herself sink down to the woman’s height. “You have to tell me what’s going on. I can’t help anyone if I don’t know.”

Sarah Jane Smith is probably the most iconic Doctor Who companion of all time. Her space adventures have inspired so much creativity in people all over the world — writers, actors, artists and countless others fell in love with Sarah Jane and took her on as their muse.

I’m lucky to be one of these creators. For the charity anthology Defending Earth, compiled by M.H. Norris, my short story “Flow” sees everyone’s favourite intrepid reporter on an adventure with the Fourth Doctor himself.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor sarah jane smith fourth

It was lovely to spend some time with a young Sarah Jane. Set during season 13, my story lands her and her Doctor on a sky-world in the middle of a crisis. As the Doctor is captured alongside the alien moth-lady rebel Arren, it’s up to Sarah Jane and Jianna, Arren’s lifemate, to save the day…

One of my biggest inspirations came from Big Finish Productions’ range of Sarah Jane audios. In one of these plays, Sarah Jane talks about moral dilemmas and the choice between saving one person or many. She explains how she used to think rescuing your loved ones was the most important thing, and that someone else could save the day instead — but how, during her travels with the Doctor, something in her ethics changed. I found this a wonderful angle of Sarah Jane’s character to explore, and I had a lot of fun playing around with her in my story as she navigates rebellion, death, tyrants, love, and giant lesbian lepidopterans.

Image (c) Defending Earth
Image (c) Defending Earth

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is available now from Big Cartel. Orders close permanently on March 17th, 2019, so be quick!

Featuring stories by:
Josh Wanisko and his daughter, Lily Wanisko
Kara Dennison
Sophie Iles
Jon Black
James Bojaciuk
Niki Haringsma
Anna Maloney
William J. Martin
Scarlett Ward
Tina Marie DeLucia
Harry King
Anne-Laure Tuduri
James Macronas
M.H. Norris

Proceeds will go to the Cancer Research Institute.

Unbound: Exile in Time and Space

The Doctor lifts her eye with some difficulty. The world around her shifts back into its usual sort of upright shape, lights guided by a blaring techno rhythm twitching into focus as she blinks. “Sorry. Hello. Was I talking?”
“You were, a bit.”
“Right. I do that,” she mutters. “Used to do a lot more of it, but then a thing happened, and another thing and then the things stopped happening altogether for some reason and it’s mostly been a lot of this, really, lately and—” She gives the woman next to her an odd look. “I’m sorry, are you dead?”
The woman laughs, a warm sound that manages to rise above the club’s fairly determined schlager beat. She plants her glass down on the bar and stares at the Doctor from out of rough bone sockets. “Not to my knowledge, love.”

One of the most infamous Big Finish audios of all time is Exile, in which the Doctor (played by Arabella Weir) is re-imagined as an alcoholic woman working at Sainsbury’s. It’s gaudy, irreverent and disgusting. And, more importantly, also transphobic as all hell.

The story sees two Time Lords (played by Toby Longworth and David Tennant) condemn the Doctor to death for all her crimes against the laws of time and space — the worst of which is, allegedly, the fact that she’d once killed herself in order to change her sex. And throughout all this, the Doctor hallucinates about her past self (inexplicably played by Nick Briggs) berating her while she drinks and vents and swears and yells and pukes.

It’s exactly the kind of trainwreck plot I always end up feeling drawn to…

I mean, yes, Exile is bad. There’s no denying that. Briggs has actually apologised for the audio in recent years. But it has so much heart to it as well. From the moment I first heard it, I wanted to learn more about this bitterly sarcastic, McGoohan-like disaster of a Doctor. How did she end up like this? Where did her timeline diverge? How much of Season 6B did she live through? Does she experience her female body as a mishap, a punishment, an unwanted transformation — stuff I can relate to hard, as a trans person — or is she more herself than ever?

So when I was asked to write for the charity anthology Unbound: Adventures in Time and Space, a book all about diverging timelines and fringe Doctors, I knew exactly what I wanted to explore.

I set to work writing Were You The Coward (named for one of my favourite songs in the world). I started by re-listening to Exile, just to confirm it was still a complete dumpster fire (it was). And once again, I found myself just utterly adoring this incarnation of the Doctor. Weir’s performance is fantastic, and her interactions with Tennant in particular are a delight. I took pages upon pages of notes to better understand their speech patterns, their outlooks on life, their goals and dislikes and character dynamics.

Then I wondered — where to next? Exile ends with the Doctor dematting, possibly destroying herself and her TARDIS, tricked by Tennant’s CIA character into ending her own existence. Well, what if she lives? Would she escape unscathed? What if she didn’t? What if… what if she became really, properly damaged, in all those delicious ways only an Unbound Doctor ever could?

And once I had a damaged Doctor in a fucked-up timeline, I just had to add Faction Paradox to the mix…

The result is a story that accompanies the Weir Doctor as she navigates her own identity, depression, disability, agency and womanhood; her relationship to the Time Lords; her dealings with a Faction cabal that has its own plans for her; and her newfound determination to escape from this hellhole of a universe. Were You The Coward, for me, is a deeply personal story. And hopefully, one that will cast a whole new light on Exile for others just like me, who could relate to this really fucking weird catastrophe of an audio as well.

Image (c) Fade to Black Publishing
Image (c) Fade to Black Publishing

With cover art by the incredible Johannes Chazot, the book also features contributions by Jacob Black, Anne-Laure Tuduri, James K. Maddox, Kara Dennison, John Peel, Paul Driscoll, Iain McLaughlin & Claire Bartlett, Rachel Redhead, Jim Mortimore, James Bojaciuk, William Shaw, Tycho McPhee Letts, Michael O’Brien, Richard Gurl, Nathan Mullins, Charles Whitt, NataLunaSans, Alec Kopecz, James Maddox, Elizabeth A. Allen, Jake J. Johnson, James Hawkins, John G. Wood, Christopher Swain-Tran, Owen McBreaty, Ewen Campion-Clarke, Arthur Lockridge, William J. Martin, Sophie Iles and Janine Rivers.

Unbound: Adventures in Time and Space will only be available until February 15th 2019 — so act quick! All proceeds from the book will go to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Faction Paradox: The Book of the Peace

Some stories start a bit weird.

One of my favourites starts with two teachers, a blue box and a junk yard. It never ends. A couple years have gone by since I first heard it told, but I still love it dearly. I became a Whovian in 2012, on a sunny day in March, when I fell in love with the show and never stopped falling. Now, six-and-a-bit years later, it’s become a way of life for me.

The story I’d like to talk about today starts in Cardiff. This was back in 2017, when I was on Whovian pilgrimage, exploring the Doctor Who Experience and Ianto’s shrine. It was another sunny day in March. I had pizza at the quay and watched the birds. I walked the castle grounds. I had a lovely time.

The next morning, in my Cardiff hotel room, I woke up and checked my e-mail. There was one from a stranger named Philip Marsh, titled “Faction Paradox”.

Opening that e-mail changed my life. Because it contained a pitch invite from Obverse Books, asking if I wanted to be part of The Book of the Peace.

Faction Paradox… well, where do I begin? It’s a necro-fetishistic mindfuck of a series that spun off from the Eighth Doctor Adventures books twenty years ago. It’s the weirdest, most wonderful corner of Who. It’s like House of Leaves and Grant Morrison’s The Filth and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; like Borges and Serafini and Brecht; like Cloud Atlas and Lovecraft and Joanna Newsom and M.R. James. It’s like Aram Khachaturian’s songs made into words. It’s everywhere Doctor Who just can’t go. Every Faction Paradox book I’ve read has changed the way I think about the world, and the friends I’ve made in this fandom are people I hope to know for the rest of my life.

That day in Cardiff (after I was done screaming) I bought a little black notebook and started writing right away. I had my main plot ready on day one, to be expanded into 10,000-ish words over the next couple of months. The fact that I’d never actually written a short story proper before didn’t stop me — and why should it? After years of writing fanfiction, I knew exactly what I wanted to create. I spent endless walks in the woods whittling away at the words and going over the story again, and again, and again.

My amazing editor Phil guided me through the writing process, suggesting things to emphasise, and knowing just where to add and where to cut. The writer line-up ended up a complete dream: Jake Black and Nate Bumber (of The Book of the Enemy fame), Alex Marchon (Stranger Tales of the City), Aditya Bidikar (Burning with Optimism’s Flames), George Mann (Engines of War), and Greg Maughan (The Perennial Miss Wildthyme). I’m incredibly honoured to be part of this book together with them.

And we made it. We wrote a Faction Paradox book. Fuckin’ hell.

Image (c) Obverse Books
Image (c) Obverse Books

With cover art by the amazing Lawrence Burton, the book is now available from Obverse and ready to fly out into the world. I can’t begin to tell you all how grateful I am — not just to be part of Faction Paradox, but to be part of the Obverse family.

I’d like to thank the following people, without whom my story could never have been made:

  • Stuart Douglas and Phil Marsh, for getting me the job.
  • Simon Bucher-Jones, for infecting me with his memetic nanobots, and for letting me play with his Book of the War bits, and for reassuring me that ideas are free.
  • Blair Bidmead, for approving my little shanty.
  • Andrew Hickey, for encouraging my earth-bound ambiguities.
  • Jacob Black, for 5am Skype talks, and for cheerleading, and for helping me find that one elusive word.
  • Alex Marchon, for Book of the War devotion, and for being the best squid friend.
  • Nate the magic bumblebee, for fearsome wiki powers, and for all that beautiful infosorbing.
  • Iris, for glamorous plot suggestions.
  • Athenodora, for cultural proofreading.
  • And Yann and Sonja, for being my inexhaustible sounding boards whenever I got stuck!

You can buy Faction Paradox: The Book of the Peace here — and don’t forget to add it on Goodreads as well!

Out now — Doctor Who: Children of Time!

 

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Image (c) BBC / BBC Worldwide, kOZMIC PRESS

Do you love Doctor Who? I mean, I know I do. I fell in love with the series in 2012 and never stopped falling. Before I knew it, I’d gone way beyond just the TV show and I was rolling around in the audio plays, novels and comics like a puppy discovering snow for the first time.

R. Alan Siler and Drew Meyer, the editors of Children of Time, have gathered up a lot of people just like me in this book — people whose lives were changed by Doctor Who. The book is filled to the brim with essays and tributes (over 80 of them!) about the show’s companions. About all these characters, young and old, alien and human, past and future, having grand adventures with the Doctor…  and the way they shaped us when we met them.

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Images (c) BBC, BBC Worldwide, Panini

My bits for the book are about two of my favourite companions ever: Izzy Sinclair and Destriianatos, from Doctor Who Magazine’s Eighth Doctor comics. These two girls mean so much to me. Izzy, a young British self-declared “geek-oid,” spends her story arc struggling with being gay and trying to feel like a proper adult. She’s sweet and oh-so-insecure, and I adore her. Destrii, meanwhile, is a deeply scarred kid whose continuous fuckups make her into a villain. Together, they’ve got a tale woven around them that goes right under the skin of what it means to grow up in a confusing, hostile world.

I’m very grateful that I was asked to write for this charity anthology. In addition to the book’s impressive list of contributors, Children of Time also features artwork from Johannes Chazot, Paul J. Hanley and many others, making it into a gorgeous collectible item. And all proceeds from the book’s sales are donated to Furkids:

[…] the largest cage-free, no-kill shelter in the Southeast for rescued cats and Sadie’s Place, a no-kill shelter for dogs. Furkids also operates one of the only facilities in the Southeast dedicated to the care of FIV positive cats. The Furkids mission is to rescue homeless animals, provide them with the best medical care and nurturing environment while working to find them a forever home. Furkids heals the whole animal, physically and emotionally, restoring its health and its spirit.

Furkids has rescued and altered more than 25,000 animals since its founding in 2002. Approximately 1,000 animals are in the Furkids program today, in the Furkids shelters, 13 PetSmart and Petco adoption centers, and more than 400 foster homes in the Atlanta area.

Furkids is the only animal rescue organization in metro Atlanta that allows children of all ages to volunteer.  Furkids volunteer programs are designed to restore the health and spirits of injured and homeless animals while providing healing opportunities for volunteers who are strengthened by the bond of love and care between humans and animals.

Buy your own copy of Children of Time now — before they run out! 😊