An occasional series in which I praise the underrated, unacknowledged or unmentionable.
The internet’s capacity for negativity and outrage is probably its most tiring aspect for me. I use Twitter quite a bit, for example, and my feed is often flooded with CAPITALISED, vehement opinions about everything from breastfeeding to The Hobbit. Some fights are worth fighting, of course, but there’s a hunger for outrage and unpleasantness — a desperate hunt for offence — that (in my opinion) only makes the world an uglier place. I’m all for being decent, excellent even, to one another.
In that spirit, I thought I’d start a semi-regular blog in which I come to praise, not bury. The fact is, even the most shoddily assembled art usually has some redeeming features. Why not focus on those for a change, rather than the innumerable failures? So this is The Snark Net, where cheap jibes and snorting derision are unwelcome.
As it’s Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary this week, I thought I should start with something Who-related. Thanks to last week’s minisode The Night of the Doctor, my first pick is a topical one.
The truth is, I love Doctor Who: The Movie (the 1996 half-American TV movie with Paul McGann). It’s an incarnation of the long-running show that, at best, seems to be tolerated by Whovians. Given it was an unsuccessful attempt to relaunch the then-dead programme as an American, X-Files-type series, there’s a general air of failure that lurks over it. The kindest words said usually amount to: Great Doctor, lousy script.
Admittedly, I can’t really defend the denouement, if only because I don’t really know what happens. Something about rewinding time and alarm clocks which, if examined too deeply, kind of spoils the potential for drama in every other episode of Who. But The Movie is hardly the first (or last) episode to rely on some last minute technical gobbledygook or sciencey magic to resolve a crisis.
What The Movie has is a genuine joie de vivre. From its opening moments, there’s an energy that earlier episodes never quite mustered. Sure, the voiceover is more mystifying than explanatory and starting a new series for a new audience inside your spaceship that is, astonishingly, bigger on the inside is a disastrous move. But the direction has such flair, sweeping through the spectacular TARDIS interior, whooshing us down to Earth, through some clever and startling cuts, that we can’t help but be swept along. This is Who at its most cinematic. Witness new companion Grace Holloway sprint down hospital corridors, dressed for the opera. For the first time, the show felt like proper drama, rather than the ephemeral Saturday night entertainment it was intended.
That’s not say the tone is note-perfect. Most of the humour works — it had been a long time since Who had actually contained intentional humour — but there are unquestionably moments of thudding joke-crapness. (Although I rather like those moments, for their quaint 90s-ness.)
Key to its success as a drama is, undoubtedly, the casting of a proper actor in the lead role. Following the series’ demise in 1989, newspaper rumours about new Doctors tended to go: Eric Idle, Tim Curry, John Cleese, Paul Daniels and Eric Idle. Always Eric Idle. McGann was not a comedian. McGann was not a lazy caricature of British eccentricism. McGann was a fine, young actor with a great body of dramatic work including The Monocled Mutineer, The Hanging Gale, Nice Town (which really deserves a DVD release) and Withnail & I.
Put simply, McGann makes the best debut of any Doctor to date. This is particularly impressive, given he spends much of his 60 minutes of screen time in an amnesiac state. He is charismatic, enigmatic, hydromatic (No, wait, that’s Greased Lightning) and romantic. He is at once the most human and most alien of Doctors. He seems more attuned to the emotional lives of others (to the point of telepathy) than previous incarnations, but keeps himself apart — even the much-criticised snog with Grace lacks any real passion. We’re charmed by him, but we’re not sure how much we trust him. It’s a shame that subsequent attempts (in spin-off fiction) to develop McGann’s Eighth Doctor focused more on the romance and the apparent sweetness than his slipperiness.
Cards on the table — McGann is my favourite Doctor. (Tom Baker aside, obviously. Nobody can compete with Tom.) He treats the part as a proper acting gig, rather than an excuse to flail around and hog the screen. As the recent minisode proved, he brings a welcome emotional weight to the role and despatches the required humour with subtlety. He understands that the funniest things are rarely those moments that are telegraphed as such. His disarming of a policeman is probably the single most perfect Doctorish moment yet seen on screen.
Grace Holloway, his quasi-companion, is no less wonderful. In the hands of Daphne Ashbrook, she is strong, funny, vulnerable and, again, more human than most of the Doc’s previous sidekicks. She has a dropkick boyfriend, she has a high-powered job, and she has a nice line in sarcastic banter. We know people like her and we like people like her. It’s a shame, perhaps, that the story doesn’t wholly belong to her. The structure would make a lot more sense if we began with her being called into hospital, to attend to a mysterious gunshot victim. When the series returned in 2005, writer Russell T Davies understood the drama in letting the mystery of the Doctor unfold from the companion's perspective, rather than being cancelled out by an infodump.
For all of its alleged flaws, The TV Movie is great fun. When it first showed back in 1996, ordinary, sane people were talking about Doctor Who again. People who hadn’t watched the show for more than a decade. Remember, this was before Buffy brought a snappy self-awareness to sci-fi, which made it okay for the mainstream to tune in.
I honestly believe Who is at its best at its least geeky — when it caters to the mainstream by incorporating elements of other things we love. This is something the TV Movie does very well. People who don’t watch sci-fi will recognise elements of ER, The X-Files (okay, technically sci-fi, but more horror-based and massive at the time) and Sherlock Holmes. At the time, I appreciated the lack of bug-eyed monsters. This was Who attempting to ground itself in the proudly cynical 1990s, without losing any of its wit, invention or joy.
In the UK, the episode rated more highly than Who had for 20 years or would again until David Tennant was in full swing. It proved similarly popular in Australia, where it was repeated several times over the next couple of years. In the US, of course, it was killed by Roseanne. We never got to see where McGann’s Doctor would have taken us, but the recent glimpse suggests it would have been somewhere pretty fantastic.
As many of you are no doubt aware, I've been a lifelong Doctor Who fan. Surprising, really, that it's taken me this long to write anything about it. The feature below is a piece I wrote for Australian magazine Screen Education. It's a somewhat personal guide to Who, looking at the show's ability to inspire its young viewers to embark on their own creative feats. It certainly did the trick for me.
The article features interviews with Nicholas Briggs (voice of the Daleks and producer of the Doctor Who audio adventures) and John Richards (writer of sci-fi sitcom Outland and one half of current Who podcast Splendid Chaps).
I recently filmed a short interview, talking about journalism and other writings for magazine Dumbo Feather. The piece is now online as part of New Conversations, a high school writing competition that Dumbo are running. (And which I'll be helping to judge.)
At the link below, there are also interviews with the very glamorous journo Sofija Stefanovic and Dumbo deputy editor Livia Albeck-Ripka.
I'm occasionally asked about the score for the Salmon and Dusk podcasts, so thought I'd put together a quick post for easy reference. The instrumental tracks I used for Season 1 (not the original How to Disappear Completely podcast) were, with a few exceptions, taken from an album called Abandoned Soundtrack by XeMa.
Happily the album is still freely available on the web. You might find it at either of these links:
I’ve signed with Barry Goldblatt at BG Literary, New York. Barry has some amazing clients on his list, including Libba Bray and Holly Black, so I’m delighted he’s found a place for me. We’ve talked about a couple of projects I have lined up (one of them may well be Salmon & Dusk related) and I feel that Barry really understands what I’m trying to do with them. I’d love to elaborate, but I should probably wait until they're actually written.
It’s slightly unusual (I’m told) for an Australian author to find themselves an agent — especially when they already have a wonderful publisher, as I do with Text Publishing— but it’s been a long-held ambition of mine, so I’m very happy Barry has taken me on. I look forward to revealing the fruits of our collaboration in the months ahead.
The latest issue of Dumbo Feather is now on newsstands, featuring two interviews of mine. The most notable is a long chat with Monocle and Wallpaper* founder Tyler Brûlé (as seen on the cover). I also spoke to Dr Sammdu Chetri about Bhutan's Gross National Happiness scheme. You can purchase a copy of the mag here. It's a great publication, with a long history of seeking out interesting people doing incredible things. I always enjoy working for them.
You can also still purchase the issue featuring my chat with Simon Amstell, which remains my favourite interview to date. What a lovely, thoughtful and very funny bloke.
Here's a teaser from the Brûlé piece:
Tyler Brûlé makes Monocle “Having gone through what I’ve gone through, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m always wondering: What are they going to do, shoot you?”
There’s something almost too good to be true about Tyler Brûlé. Son of a Canadian football legend and a German-born Estonian artist, Brûlé moved to Manchester in the late 80s, where he trained as a journalist. In 1994 while working as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, he was shot twice and nearly died. Some soul-searching from his hospital bed led him to abandon the battlefield and launch seminal style magazine Wallpaper*. Since leaving the magazine in 2002, Brûlé has founded leading ad agency Winkreative and launched Monocle, an intelligent print journal that has defied a downward trend for the magazine industry. Alongside his media successes, Brûlé is known for his love of international travel (in business class, naturally) and high living. His weekly Financial Times column paints him as something of a restless, millionaire playboy, obsessed with fine dining, exquisite clothing and ski resorts. Similarly, Monocle feels somewhat like a magazine James Bond might read when jetting out on his latest mission.
I've been locked away working on the follow up to Fire in the Sea, but am now emerging blinking into the glare for a couple of festivals. Over the next fortnight, I'll be popping up as part of two excellent programs.
The first is Reading Matters-- a wonderful conference about all things YA, where I'll be appearing alongside such notables as Vikki Wakefield, Libba Bray, Gayle Forman, Andrew Flanagan and Garth Nix. Full details are available here and I'm told it's not too late to book yourself into some sessions! I'm very excited to be part of this conference and would be delighted to see you there.
I'll also be going on a tour of regional Victoria with some of the Reading Matters team. So, if you're in the Geelong area, keep an eye out for an event at Waurn Ponds Library on June 3.
The second festival thing is an old favourite of mine -- the Emerging Writers' Festival, which began last night. It's a rare festival in that it really is for writers, rather than readers. No matter what stage you've reached in the writerly journey, there's bound to be an event for you. This year, I'm actually appearing as part of the Reading Matters team as a YA writer, facing off against an emerging writer. This will involve me reading 5 minutes of a new piece of fiction, which I hope to write very, very soon. Tickets are available here.
My last bit of news is that Fire in the Sea will be available in US bookstores from February 2014. It's taken a while, but I'm delighted that it will finally be landing on American shores. You can pre-order your copy from Amazon here. (Or you could ask your local bookstore to get one in, which would be even better!)
As for the sequel, I hope to have more news about that in the coming months.
I'll be making my first (post-publication) festival appearance next month at the Perth Writers' Festival. There are many reasons why this is a wonderful thing. For one, I'm looking forward to have an excuse to pop back to Perth in the height of summer. It's been years since I was there for hot weather, so I'll be making the most of Cottesloe Beach. Actually, I may need to buy bathers.
Blue waters aside, I'm excited (and nervous) at the thought of sitting on the other side of the desk at various panels. I've done this a few times before, but that was before I had an actual book to promote or defend or dissect. It doesn't help that there are many highly-regarded authors also appearing at the festival. (Margaret Atwood! China Mieville! Kate Grenville!) I will be trying my best not to look like an impostor. But then, as it's a writers' festival, I kind of figure everyone else will be doing the same thing.
I'm doing four sessions, not all of which have been announced. You can read about two of them here:
I'm also one of the authors chosen by Melbourne's Centre for Youth Literature for this year's Reading Matters program. This is very exciting, even if it doesn't mean a swim. I'll be joining some very talented folk, some of whom have been announced at the link below. If you're in Melbourne and are interested in Young Adult fiction, I recommend you come along.
In other news, I recently finished recording an audiobook version of Fire In The Sea for Vision Australia. At this stage, it will only be available to their members, sorry. It was a strange process, reading something that couldn't be changed or edited. I rarely read my stuff once it's seen print and now I kind of remember why. For the most part, however, it was a lot of fun bringing the characters to life. It reminded me that I've missed podcasting. Maybe it's time to go back. Once I've finished the sequel.
Finally, I became a father for the first time nine weeks ago. So far so good. Although I'm sure I used to have more time to write.