Q&A of the Damned
Sometimes I get asked questions. Sometimes I answer them. And sometimes I compile those answers and post them here on a week when I’ve not gotten around to writing something better.
I enjoy it, but less than I want to. The immaculately well-designed plastic experience should appeal to me utterly. But something about it just feels… the fact that it ideologically wants you to resist approaching it as the artificial experience that it is rubs me the wrong way. I remember doing the “behind the scenes” tour when I was, like, twelve, and being disappointed that it didn’t go behind the scenes enough. I want to approach Disney World on a level of pure artificiality, in full awareness of its underlying fakeness and cynicism. And it doesn’t want to let me. To me, Disney World should consist of doing things like saying “Man, Splash Mountain is a great ride. Is there like, a movie it’s based on or something?”
Are you keeping a running tally of all the things you’ve said in a funny caption that Clara was disguised as? If you aren’t, can you please update me on someone that is?
No, and no, but I can tell you off the top of my head that it’s a candle, some crown moulding, River Song, a hospital roof, the BBC logo, and the number two. The gag is building, shaggy dog style, to an utterly disappointing payoff.
On the subject of interviews – if you were allowed to ask Davies and Moffat just one question what would it be? (And to make it tricky it has to be the same question for both of them.)
I mean, this is actually not really on the subject of interviews, because an interview is based much more heavily on flow and arc than it appears. I mean, even an interview like my one with Alex, which was an e-mail interview where he reworked my questions a bit… actually, that’s a really good example. My original question list was in places quite different (I prompted for things on specific songs at times, and he often cut that to pick what he presumably thought was a more interesting song for a given point.), and almost all of the little interjections on my part are actually things he added.
But the shape of the interview is very much mine. There’s a conscious move from talking about the album as a whole, then larger philosophical themes, and then transitioning to the material. The form of a question might change – I had originally pitched the Goodnight London question in terms of the earlier demos, several of which I have copies of, with the idea that we might use clips to talk about the evolution of the song, which Alex ultimately decided he didn’t want to do, so he rephrased the question almost completely. But he still answered the question I asked, just without providing clips of the acoustic demo/military choir/big dumb synth-rock versions. So that still became what it always was – a question about the material process from writing a song to recording an album track.
And that came both out of the fact that Alex and I have known each other for over a decade and thus I have a good sense of how to structure an interview for him. But it’s much more than just one question – the Goodnight London question is what it is precisely because it follows a bunch of other stuff that gives context for it. For me, the best question in the interview is the big materialism question that got three paragraphs of answer to it, but that question only works because Alex had eight paragraphs of Big Artist Statement leading up to it so that when he says “We did a lot of versions of “Everything Could Change,” for example, and some of them got too obvious at times in the way we were handling the whole “voices-in-your-head” business. The final version, especially with the sudden piano and vocal distortion on verse two, and also with the choral ending, really felt like cutting the Gordian Knot. We hadn’t ever figured out how to end the song before that,” it’s about more than just a technical problem.
So a single question interview is a very different beast. There’s no room to start gently pushing an interview down a given path to get to the weirder stuff. I mean, give me two hours with Moffat and I could craft a phenomenal interview that gets him talking about things he’s never talked about in interviews. Hell, give me a ten question e-mail interview and I can probably get something quite interesting.
Give me a single question and all I’m going to be able to do is get a generic, default, answer that’s basically the most obvious one. Make it a question that has to be applicable to another writer as well so that I can’t even go with any specificity and, well, you’re no longer even really asking me about Davies and Moffat.
So I’ll go with my catch-all question for creative types: what work of yours do you feel never got the attention it deserved?
What do writers do?
Feel guilty about not writing, mainly. Interspersed with bursts of writing.
They Might Be Giants’ Factory Showroom?
Where the band starts to go a bit wrong for me. Still has some absolutely marvelous stuff on it, though. And “Token Back to Brooklyn” felt like sorcery at the time. Was also fun, in the early days of mp3s, to see what CD rippers could and couldn’t handle the album.
A really interesting transition point in the nature of the 90s, though. I really need to find a project that will let me just dive into the 90s at the length I want to sometimes.
Why haven’t you done an essay about Dr. Loo and the Filthy Phaleks yet?
Utter and profound lack of interest, primarily.
The One Doctor?
One of those things that makes you admit that Big Finish can work. The thing is, it’s designed for audio. The plot based on moving around through very different circumstances. Jokes that are structured as audio jokes (the beginning only works because there are no visuals). And, of course, it’s Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman, who are funny and clever. It’s an audio that’s determined to keep doing things and to be interesting over every minute of its duration. There’s never a point where you think “well, that’s the promise of that idea exhausted, now we just have to wrap the plot up and be done.”
If I were forced to teach someone how to write audio drama using only Big Finish plays, I’d hand them The One Doctor and Scherzo. And probably Zagreus as well, just so they understand how it can all go wrong.
Who is the best writer of the Cartmel era, and why?
That’s tricky, because so many are one-hit wonders, and I have trouble being inclined to judge a writer based on a single script. So for me, there are only three credible candidates: Aaronovich, Briggs, and Wyatt.
Frustratingly, each one has one very good script and one less good one. Aaronovich and Briggs have the biggest gulf in quality – Remembrance and Fenric are near perfection, Battlefield and Dragonfire are very weak. Wyatt has two scripts that are very good, but neither is as good as Aaronovich or Briggs’s best.
Past that you’ve got several writers – Munro, Platt, and Curry most obviously, although Kohll deserves a mention – who are very good with one story.
On the basis of later career, Aaronovich seems the clear frontrunner. And notably, Battlefield probably would have worked as the three-parter it was designed to be, which gives him two stories that inventively reconstruct what Doctor Who is. Briggs has one very solid story, but I’m not sold on Dragonfire even as the comedy it should have been. Wyatt is tempting, but I’d want to have seen more variety from him – both of his stories are similar structures.
But I think there’s a real reason to suggest that the best writer of the Cartmel era is the one who brought it together: Cartmel himself.
Why do people call Tomb of the Cybermen a base under siege? There’s no base under siege in it.
Let us broaden the definition of base under siege, then, to get one specific story structure that Doctor Who does use – one that actually begins to include a number of stories that are not obviously bases under siege at first glance.
In a base under siege, the humans are in one room, the monsters in another, and the monsters are trying to get in.
By this standard, Tomb of the Cybermen is self-evidently a base under siege. The first base under siege is still, I believe, The Tenth Planet, but I’m open to arguments about an earlier precedent. (The Sensorites starts there, but drifts quickly.)
Inferno is also a base under siege, albeit one with lots of additions. So, bizarrely, is Remembrance of the Daleks. And The Lodger is a base under siege in which the door is reversed so that the monster is trying to lure the humans into its room instead of getting into the humans’ room.
Paul Cornell has referred to David Whittaker as “slightly overemphasised these days”. Mission accomplished?
Perhaps. I mean, I’d obviously be the most guilty party in that critique, and it’s true that I put a lot of weight on the Whitaker angle. Much of this is due to the larger structure – Whitaker becomes a placeholder for “the magic of Doctor Who” in a slightly literal sense, because he happened to be really interested in a set of symbolism with magical implications. And, equally interestingly, he’s a cipher. We know very, very little about him. And so we’re forced to understand him entirely through his work. Which is enough that you can’t project just anything on him – he’s very clearly not Terry Nation, for instance – but still little enough that he’s a major creative figure who you can co-opt for a number of agendas that may or may not have been intentional ones. So I find him useful for the sort of criticism I do, which is based in part on a carefully chosen myopia.
And certainly I’m glad to have been potentially responsible for an alleged overemphasizing of a figure who didn’t get enough attention before. The fact that “David Whitaker was the only consistently good Troughton-era writer” was not just a reflexive and universally agreed upon statement is appalling. And that’s as much due to a certain generation of fandom’s weird fetishization of Season Five as anything, and I think Enemy of the World coming back is, in the long run, going to do more for Whitaker’s reputation than anything I ever said, but still. His reputation wasn’t good enough – he was by miles the best writer of the 1960s.
But in the long term, it doesn’t do at all for regard for Whitaker to crowd out the other very good writers of the 1960s. In particular, Dennis Spooner, Donald Cotton, Ian Stuart Black, and, it has to be said, Terrance Dicks, whose arrival conspicuously coincided with the Troughton era becoming relatively consistent in quality.
An interesting transitional work for Gaiman. On the one hand, it’s kind of the last interesting moment in Gaiman’s career. After it, he was untouchable literary royalty. I remember having been a fan of his stuff for a good three years prior to it – I imported a copy of Neverwhere before it got US release, had long since read all of Sandman, and was to the point of eagerly buying arcana like Midnight Days and Legend of the Green Flame the day they came out. He was brilliant and great, but also, I was the only one of my friends who read him as an author, as opposed to who knew about Sandman.
After American Gods, on the other hand, he was a celebrity author whose every release was a Big Deal.
And you can see that in his work. In any successful artist’s career, there’s a moment where they transition from youthful hunger to having it made. It’s usually a rough point as well – it’s rarely flattering for the artist. It’s where the spectre of “I liked your old stuff better” really raises its head, and there’s a fairness to it, because that hunger and desperate, frantic need to get noticed and to succeed has a peculiar and enticing effect on art. When every book could be your last you scramble madly to write them, to say everything, to make an impact.
Once you’ve properly, clearly succeeded, well… it’s not that you turn to crap, but there’s less urgency. You take a very different sort of risk. Failure isn’t quite as terrifying, and so you start creating things where the possibility of failure is accepted. These works become glorious in their own right sometimes – you’d never have something like Promethea or The Invisibles or the Berlin trilogy or Love and Monsters from someone who knows that one wrong move and their career might be over. But it’s a different sort of glory from early, hungry work.
And American Gods is where Gaiman’s hungry period ends. Sandman was brilliant, but it was a comic. Sure, Gaiman was big in comics, but that made him a big fish in a very tiny pond. American Gods was where Gaiman broke to the mainstream and became a brand unto himself.
And to be honest, it was pretty bad for his career. I find very little that he started after American Gods compelling. I think there’s a lot of self-indulgent work or work that’s pretty clearly written to cater to his built-in fanbase. (Note that Coraline was largely written prior to American Gods). From about 2001 to 2011 I dare say he was… mediocre. And while American Gods is absolutely and searingly brilliant, it’s hard not to notice that it’s directly to blame for that decade.
We seem to have moved into a new phase, however. Somewhere in amongst his first time in a decade working under a writer who was as good as he was (that’d be Moffat) or the creative influence of Amanda Palmer or just that he woke up and went “fuck, I’m fifty” and acquired a different sort of hunger. But since 2011 he’s been on fire again.
Who are all the players in The Last War In Albion again? I mean, from what I recall the five “major” players are Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Ellis and Gillen. But then there’s William Blake sometimes. A lot of the time. What about Lawrence Miles or Terry Pratchett? What about others?
Miles might make a cameo. Pratchett… well, Good Omens will happen, certainly. Past that… I mean, an exhaustive list of players is impossible at this moment. There are a lot of players. The next chapter has… Alan Davis, Chris Claremont, Steve Parkhouse, Dave Thorpe, Jamie Delano, and Frank Miller, for instance. Oh, and probably some mix of Jim Starlin, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby, but I’ve not written that bit yet.
Blake is certainly a thing, however.
Given the American Gods is where Gaiman “made it”, where did the rest of the Moore, Morrison, Ellis, and Gillen make it?
The question of where Moore made it is oddly fraught, because in many ways he did so very early on. He’s never really shot for much more than making a living, and so in many ways had made it by 1983, when he was holding down regular work in three separate magazines. Once he was successful at DC and it was clear he had a long-term career it was unequivocal. Watchmen certainly took the pressure off in an entirely new way, in that he never actually had to work again if he didn’t want to, but with Moore there’s a certain lack of financial ambition that I think defines his work, and that means that the moment of making it came very weirdly early for him and had little to no actual impact on his career. There clearly is a transition as of Watchmen, but it feels in many ways like he’d already made that transition for himself once he started working for DC and was able to give up the lower-paying UK work. That feels like the moment when Moore starts being selective in what he does.
Morrison made it with Arkham Asylum, and quickly developed an effective strategy of doing moneymaking mainstream work alongside weirder personal projects. (The Invisibles/JLA being the iconic one.)
Ellis made it with Transmet, fairly straightforwardly.
Gillen… too early to tell.
Who are the equivalent players of the Last War in Albion in the writers of Doctor Who?
I don’t think there are equivalents, honestly. I don’t think I’d be interested in the project if it lined up that well with something I’d already written as much about as I have Doctor Who. In many ways, that’s why I did the joke of including TARDIS Eruditorum as an appendix to Last War in Albion: to make it clear that Albion was about different things than Eruditorum, and was not some straightforward companion piece. (I don’t think you could embed the war into TARDIS Eruditorum in the same way, honestly. I mean, when I revise the Adventuress of Henrietta Street post and/or add Book of the War in as an extra essay (yes unnoun I know your feelings on that idea) I’ll almost certainly drop the phrase in, but you could never append the War as a guest post to Eruditorum. I don’t even think you could justify a Pop Between Realities entry on the War.
Is there any ideal entry point for Blake?
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and The Book of Urizen are probably the three that best combine Blake’s weirdness, an approachability, and a chronological earliness that makes understanding the later, weirder things easier. The former two are positively cuddly, while Urizen is… tougher going, but at least gets you into Blake’s mythology proper.
A Confederacy of Dunces?
I wouldn’t know – I hardly ever visit GallifreyBase anymore.
April 24, 2014 @ 12:09 am
Regarding the final comment:
April 24, 2014 @ 12:36 am
Could you elaborate upon Remembrance of the Daleks as a base under siege?
April 24, 2014 @ 2:45 am
The gag is building, shaggy dog style, to an utterly disappointing payoff.
In true Steven Moffat style!
April 24, 2014 @ 4:08 am
Did I hear a valve pop?
April 24, 2014 @ 5:36 am
I heard a cry.
April 24, 2014 @ 6:21 am
April 24, 2014 @ 6:32 am
You seem to be confused. This isn't Gallifrey Base.
April 24, 2014 @ 10:17 am
In this entry, Clara is disguised as an utterly disappointing payoff.
April 24, 2014 @ 1:11 pm
Factory Showroom: I love it, absolutely love it, but I see it as a turning point too, and I confess I haven't really bothered spending much time with anything they've done since, though I've heard a few individual songs I liked. I really started being turned off circa John Henry, though, not because it doesn't have brilliant moments (it does), but because it was the first TMBG album I didn't love start to finish.
Neil Gaiman: I was prepared to disagree with your assessment of 2001-2011 until I looked it up and remembered what was happening during that period. I really enjoyed Anansi Boys and thought The Graveyard Book was pleasant enough, but they're definitely cuddly and not all that challenging. On the other hand, I wasn't that big on Neverwhere (it's all right, but even at the time it read like self-parody to me) or Stardust (just leaves me cold), and I've never liked many of his short stories. On the other hand, I'm not sure The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn't flat out the best thing he's ever done, so there we go.
April 24, 2014 @ 3:21 pm
Utter and complete agreement on the "what do writers do?" question. Also, in agreement that good interviews have to be conversations or else they come off as terribly stilted and artificial.
As for Disney World, I appreciate its ability to construct incredibly detailed, immersive physical versions of what are normally only imagined worlds. If you go as an adult, you start really noticing the strange little things that you never notice as a child – how spot-on retro Tomorrowland is, the posters for environmental rallies against loggers on the white-water rafting ride in Animal Kingdom, and the "buzzing bee" version of Beauty and the Beast while waiting on the Bug's Life ride. Universal has started down this path with Islands of Adventure, especially in the Harry Potter area, but doesn't quite stick the landing elsewhere.
April 24, 2014 @ 3:33 pm
This comment has been removed by the author.
April 24, 2014 @ 5:27 pm
April 24, 2014 @ 8:13 pm
Shots downed, beers give pursuit.
April 24, 2014 @ 8:22 pm
I haven't read The Ocean at the End of the Lane yet, but your recommendation resonates. So far American Gods is my favorite long work of Gaiman's. Laura Moon makes up at least half the reason for this preference. In the short story department, what do you think of "Murder Mysteries"?
As to TMBG, Give Nanobots a chance. It's got some of John and John's best songwriting on it.
April 25, 2014 @ 7:32 am
American Gods was my favorite, too, until Ocean (which is a very different animal, so maybe it's not even right to compare them). "Murder Mysteries" is fine by me; it's been a long time since I read it, but I remember it was among the ones I enjoyed (P. Craig Russell helped). I started (and stopped) reading his short stories at a time when my youthful reaction was typically "This isn't as good as Sandman" (which also helps explain my initial reaction to Neverwhere), which is obviously unfair. I should go back and read some of those collections again.
I'll check out Nanobots, thanks! I haven't really disliked what I've heard since then (except the kids' albums, which I like better in principle than in practice), I just kind of got out of the habit of following them.
April 25, 2014 @ 6:26 pm
As much as I love… LOVE Neil Gaiman in general, it does seem like everything from roughly the time of "American Gods" onwards was A Neil Gaiman Story (TM).
Sometimes ("Anansi Boys", "The Graveyard Book", much of "The Doctor's Wife") this was still a wonderful thing. Other times ("Odd and the Frost Giants", "Beowulf"), not so much. (Could his "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" BE any more head-shakingly Gaiman?!?)
But he's still completely worthwhile, of course. I was lucky enough to see him live in Savannah back in '12, as part of a storytelling tour – he read an autobiographical story about meeting Amanda Palmer; the CD accompanying the tour had another about his son, and both were lovely in their sweetness and somewhat bewildered good humor. I haven't yet gotten to read "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" but am looking forward to it. I will probably always maintain that we are SO lucky to have him.