Geeky Stuff I’m Excited About #2 – Doctor Who: Dark Eyes 4

So what’s it about?

This box set of audio stories is the fourth and final season of the audio series Dark Eyes, featuring the Eighth Doctor as played by Paul McGann. The series began in 2012 and continued with two more seasons in 2014, mainly focusing on the Doctor and his adventures with companions Molly O’Sullivan, a nursing assistant from World War I, and Liv Chenka, who had previously met the Doctor in his seventh incarnation. The series has also featured recurring enemies the Daleks, the Master, and the Eminence, the last of which is currently exclusive to Big Finish. The main arc throughout the series has been Molly, her ‘dark eyes’ and why she’s important to a number of people, including the Time Lords, the Daleks and the Master. While Molly won’t be in the final season of the series, previous key enemies of the series will appear as well as the Sontarans.

Why am I excited about this story?

Well, there’s the obvious: I’m a big fan of both the Eighth Doctor and the Dark Eyes series in general, so the final series of this is something I’ve been anticipating for a few months now. I also adore (and spoiler warning, for those who’ve not yet listened to UNIT: Dominion) Alex MacQueen’s take on the Master. It’s pretty extreme and over-the-top at times, but he’s just so damn fun and lovable, not to mention ruthless and pure evil. He’s featured pretty heavily in the series as well, so it’s great that he’s showing up for the final series. The Daleks also kicked the story off, so it’s great for them to return in the final season.

But the Master and the Daleks in one story? Holy. Crap.

True, we’ve had the Master and the Daleks team up before in the TV series, but that was in Frontier in Space over 40 years ago and, frankly, only something we got a glimpse of in the final 10 minutes. It’s still cool as hell to see two of the Doctor’s greatest enemies teaming up, but still, it’s a shame that it hasn’t happened on screen since, and not explored in greater detail.

Thankfully, that’s what Big Finish is for: doing the seriously cool ideas that the TV series won’t do, and even better, actually creating truly awesome stories out of those cool ideas: The Light at the End, teaming up the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors; The Worlds of Doctor Who, a story told across numerous spin-off series before climaxing as a Doctor Who episode; An Earthly Child, showing what happens when the Doctor finally returns to Earth in the 22nd century to see Susan, centuries after he had left her in The Dalek Invasion of Earth; and so many more. Stories that could come across as bad fanfic if not handled properly but still turn out to be great Doctor Who stories in their own right that are usually fun to listen to. So naturally, the idea of a full-length Master/Dalek team-up written and produced by the excellent team at Big Finish is almost too awesome to think about. The best part about it, though? They actually used the most Doctor Who-ey title that, for some reason, NO ONE has used before:

Master of the Daleks.

I mean, seriously…how the hell has that title not been used until now?

But also, I’m excited because the previous seasons have been so great and epic, and I know this final season will not only continue that trend, but, I expect, wrap the series up in a satisfying way. I’m continually impressed by the excellent work Big Finish does and, as much as I enjoy the TV series, I generally prefer Big Finish’s output, especially with their Eighth Doctor stories. Even though we now all know how his story ends due to the excellent Night of the Doctor, they can still take his Doctor into big and dramatic directions, something I know will continue with Dark Eyes 4.

When the series does finish, I know I’m going to be pretty sad when the story is over. And I also know that I’ll be immediately looking forward to the next Eighth Doctor series Doom Coalition in November. And, of course, I’ll be re-listening to the entire series and blogging about it as a whole, too. In the meantime, I’m just gonna enjoy the anticipation of more epic Who coming up in a little over a week.

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Geeky Stuff I Love #1 – Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Adventures (audio series)

What is it?

A series of audio stories by Big Finish Productions, overall focusing on the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) and his companion Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith). Set in the ‘classic’ era of the show, the stories are more based on the style of the revival TV series that began in 2005, with longer episodes but mostly shorter stories compared to the more serialized story telling of the classic era, a faster pace, and story arcs that built up to epic finales. As a result, the series was initially designed to be more accessible than with most other Big Finish stories to fans of the new TV series who didn’t know much about the classic era, although like the new series, it has featured a number of classic era enemies, some that have yet to make an appearance in the new era on television. The series ended in 2011.

Why do I love it?

For one thing, and this is the first thing you should know about me: I am a massive Eighth Doctor fan. While I admit, I haven’t read all of the Eighth Doctor Adventure novels that were published in the late 90s/early 00s, I have listened to all of the wonderful stories made by Big Finish that focus on his Doctor. This is mainly because I love McGann’s performance as the Doctor, ever since it made me a fan back in 1996 (say what you want about the TV movie, but McGann nailed it in his debut story), but also because Big Finish have taken his Doctor in such brilliant directions, both before the series came back on TV and the future of not just his Doctor but the Doctor in general was in uncharted territory (although admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on the Divergent Universe arc overall, but even that had some damn brilliant stories), and after, when the series returned on television in 2005.

Arguably, there was a clear influence from the TV series revival on Big Finish, especially with the Eighth Doctor, most significantly in two ways. First, the faster paced style of the new series – moving away from 4-part, 25-minute episode serials to stories told in one, maybe two 50-minute episodes – was copied when Big Finish decided to give the Eighth Doctor his own range back in 2007, with the wonderfully talented Sheridan Smith playing one of my favourite companions ever, Lucie (bleedin’) Miller. I really adored this series right from the first season: while I still love the Eighth Doctor’s previous stories in Big Finish’s main range of Who audios, it had started to lose some of its fun in later seasons. But then came a new, feisty companion from the 21st century, someone who doesn’t seem to fit the Eighth Doctor’s more classical, Edwardian style and yet compliments it so well. The dialogue between the two was often hilarious to listen to, and their journey from reluctant companions to the best of friends was a joy. Suddenly, the sheer fun of the Eighth Doctor, the one who had been so enthusiastically happy over a pair of shoes when we first saw him, was back.

At least, at first. Because something else that strongly influenced where Big Finish took the Eighth Doctor was the story. When the revival began with Eccleston’s Doctor, we quickly found out that between where the classic era ended and the new one began, the Doctor had wiped out his own people and the Daleks (well, mostly) to end a long and bloody war. And while the overall series of the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller’s adventures were overall brilliantly fun (although they still had their dark and dramatic moments, of course, especially in the finales), towards the end, particularly in the final season, things started to get, well, pretty darn grim.

You’re probably expecting me to say that, once again, the Eighth Doctor’s story had lost some of its spark, but honestly, the final season of the Eighth Doctor Adventures is one of my favourite seasons of Who ever. And I do mean ever. It had an excellent exploration of what made the Doctor tick, why he tries harder to be a hero in his Eighth life more than ever, even when he’s faced with some truly terrible choices (The Resurrection of Mars especially is a brilliant example of this). Even some of the low key stories are brilliant: Prisoner of the Sun, a completely stand-alone story, has the Doctor imprisoned in just a couple of rooms for six years while trying to prevent the deaths of billions. He’s a man trying harder to be the hero more than ever, saving every single life he can and never taking another, not through choice, not if he can help it, which makes the knowledge of what he becomes – the man who fought and ended the Time War – even more horrendously ironic.

Then there’s the final two episodes: Lucie Miller and To The Death. Possibly one of the darkest and most grim Doctor Who stories of them all, this is by far one of my favourite finale stories. The Daleks are calculating and ruthless – really ruthless, for a change – the Doctor is pushed to his limits and perhaps even beyond in every possible way, and, most surprising of all for a Who story, there’s a body count of major characters that even George R.R. Martin would be proud of.

After four seasons of fun and thrills in time and space, (with more than a little bit of drama along the way,) the series ends with the Doctor a broken man, and far closer to a man ready for a war. The final scene especially is incredibly haunting. It also nicely leads into the series Dark Eyes (coming to an end early next month), although it is a great series that stands well on its own.

Who would I recommend this to?

The group of people I’d immediately recommend this to first are definitely fans of the new series. Not only do these stories have that style down to a tee, but it’s also very accessible continuity wise, with any backstory explained as easily as, say, those of the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master in the TV series. There’s also the prequel nature of the stories and how it plays around with it – for example, if you’re relatively new to the series and know about the Time Lords but know little of what those bastards were actually like, then this gives you a pretty good idea right from the first ep, as they pretty much thrust Lucie Miller right into the Doctor’s lap (no, not like that – one thing this shares in common with the TV series is that it’s still very family friendly).

There’s also some truly great drama that the new series has become known for (I’ve mentioned how dark and soul destroying To The Death is, but other notable examples of eps that are heartbreaking include The Vengeance of Morbius, Orbis, Death in Blackpool and The Resurrection of Mars), and it’s a nice way for newer fans to ease into the classic era. Obviously, classic fans like myself will enjoy this too, both for the little references and returning enemies along the way, but the mixture of classic and new it has makes it the perfect bridge for new fans to jump on board with the classics.

Writers that make me think, “Damn, I wish I could write like that” #1 – Stephen King and The Dark Tower novels

As long as I don’t get distracted (which, admittedly, happens a lot), this will hopefully be the first of quite a few blogs about writers I not only admire, but have particular styles and ways of storytelling that have made me both wish and even start to attempt to be half as good with my own story that I’m writing. Keep in mind, these blog entries won’t just be about authors – some will be about comic book writers, tv writers, film writers, hell, even video game writers. Writers with ideas and visions so great that they’ve influenced my own, sometimes subtly, sometimes heavily. I hope to write a few of these blogs over time, admittedly more for my benefit than anyone else reading them. It might be a good way of really reminding myself what made me love these writers and their stories – and great stories in general – and make writing possibly just a little bit easier. If it doesn’t, well, I’m a self indulgent sod, and I always love fanboying in general, so there’s that.

So, enough babbling: time to go into detail about Stephen King, and how one particular series of books of his changed my life. Which sounds more than a little bit exaggerated, but let me explain.

Now, the funny (and let’s be honest, more than a little understandable) thing about Stephen King is that, more than anything else, he’s more than often labelled as a ‘horror writer’. Now don’t get me wrong, he is someone who is, needless to say, very, very excellent at writing horror. No, let me re-phrase: Stephen King is an excellent writer in general whose most famous novels – including Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining and It – come under the horror category. (Although in that last case, there’s definitely far, far more to that story than just horror, that’s for sure.) But it wasn’t until towards the end of high school that I realised that.

For the longest time, I wasn’t someone who had much of an interest in horror. I was a boy who was scared very easily, and I had no interest in watching or reading a story that was more than I could handle. I was more than happy settling for Doctor Who for anything approaching a horror fix (ironically, the stories I loved the most were the ones most heavily influenced by adult horror, but I’ll go into more detail on that for another blog). Writers like Stephen King were pretty much the kind of writers that I avoided.

And then along came 2004. It was my final year of high school (before sixth form, at least), and I was looking for something new to read. I then spotted a series of 7 books by Stephen King that, oddly enough, didn’t look like horror novels at all: a series called The Dark Tower, each volume’s cover showing an image of the Tower in the distance, getting closer and closer, until the final volume had the viewpoint looking up at it. Everything about the covers, from the logo to the covers to the Tower itself, screamed epic Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy with more than a hint of Western atmosphere. The idea of a ‘horror’ writer like King writing such a series intrigued me, to say the least. So, on the day that me and my parents first saw Shaun of the Dead (perhaps not a usual choice for a family film, but still one we definitely enjoy watching together), I bought the first volume, The Gunslinger.

It was an interesting read, to say the least. It had a fantastic spaghetti western feel to it, especially in its early chapters, while also having hints of something more fantastic and more epic along the way. At times, it was a little strange, surreal, and almost low-key, but it was an intriguing introduction to the series, especially the hints that Mid-World, the world of the protagonist, gunslinger Roland Deschain, and our world were in some way connected. However, I didn’t get around to reading volume 2 of the series until a few months later, when my parents got me The Drawing of the Three as a Christmas present. Out of all the presents they’ve given me, both for Christmas and for birthdays – the ones I’ve begged for, the ones I screamed for, the surprise gifts that I didn’t ask for but absolutely loved – this present, one I added to a list of suggestions for them to pick, is one of the best they’ve ever given me. Hell, it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

Because while I really enjoyed reading the first volume, it was the second that really blew my mind. Not just in a way that made me think, “Oh, so that’s what all the fuss about King is about!”, but in a way that changed me on a fundamental level and made me a Tower Junkie (a term that even King uses to describe fans of the Tower books) for life in a crucial way that the first book didn’t, and it’s really hard to explain why. Perhaps the best way to explain is by giving key examples of how the first and second (and even subsequent) volumes were so different.

With the first volume, even King admitted that he was very, very young when he started writing it, and perhaps due to over-ambition or just a little less experience, the first book comes across as rather strange and surreal at times, less because of the setting and any ‘magic’ that happens, but more because of its characters and the actions they take, including its protagonist. However, I think that owes more to its spaghetti western influence than anything else. Something else that makes The Gunslinger stand out compared to subsequent volumes is that each of the five chapters were originally published as individual short stories in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and even in the revised edition I read, the episodic nature of each chapter really showed.

Keep in mind that I’m not saying I didn’t like or even really, really enjoy reading The Gunslinger. Just that it didn’t have the massive pull on me that The Drawing of the Three did, right from the opening prologue. Now, I’m not gonna spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read it, but the first time I read that, it shocked me so much that I knew the rest of the book was gonna be something special. And oh boy, was I right.

One thing that made it so different to The Gunslinger was when it was published: 1987. Now, it’s less because of the time itself that’s important and more the fact that it had been 10 years since the first chapter of the Gunslinger had been published. So during that time, King not only wrote more great, great novels (including 2 of his all-time greatest and most epic, The Stand and It) and thus gained some great, great experience writing, to say the very fucking least, but he also had time to work out exactly where to take his magnum opus. Not that I’m saying these are definitely the key reasons why Drawing was, in my humble opinion, much more successful at hooking myself and many other junkies, but I think it more than likely that they helped, at least.

Something else that also helped, however, is that unlike the first volume, DOTT really was written as a novel, rather than individual, heavily linked short stories. The book is still divided into key chunks, but overall, there’s much more focus on the kind of story that King wants to tell, and overall it really does flow better.

What probably helps most of all is that the book is almost twice as long as The Gunslinger (which at only a little over 200 pages, it’s a slim paperback, especially by King’s standards). Ironically, the length helped me to read it that much faster than the first volume. Sometimes, authors write long books for the sake of it, at times feeling like nothing but padding. With King though, a lot of what makes The Drawing of the Three so great – and in fact, as I would discover later on, many of his greatest books – is that he has a real knack of adding an incredible amount of depth to his world. He’s able to flesh out his characters and their places and make them feel like real people, even the ones who only appear for a couple of pages at a time. He gives little details and little glimpses into the lives and minds of all his characters, both major and minor, and it’s a level of depth that really helps sell his stories that much more. Especially stories that concern worlds as fantastic as the ones in The Dark Tower.

This, I think, is probably the key difference between the first and later volumes. We see quite a number of characters in the first volume, but we don’t find out much about many of them, not really, and you can tell that it’s intentional, that for the beginning of his story (and that’s essentially what The Gunslinger is, not a complete story by itself but a 200+ page starting point), he wanted to create an air of mystery for his world, even for the boy Jake, someone who’s clearly from our world but doesn’t remember much from his previous life before Mid-World.

Does this change in the second volume? Regarding the world of Roland itself, only partially. There’s a lot of questions by the end regarding Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower that still remain unanswered, including why he’s truly looking for the Tower in the first place. Essentially, like The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three is only another part of the beginning.

However, one key difference between the first and second volumes is that while The Gunslinger hinted that there were connections between our world and Mid-World, in TDOTT, those worlds clash, in big and dramatic ways. So we get a lot more great characters and stories in our world (my favourite being Eddie Dean, a character I adored reading from the first page), but at the same time, even Roland is fleshed out: in volume 1, he’s something of an enigma, a character heavily influenced by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (in fact, for the longest time in the first volume, he’s only ever referred to in the narrative as ‘the gunslinger’), but in volume 2, he’s much more fleshed out, partially due to being seen through the eyes of Eddie and Odetta, and partially because of what happens in the prologue when…well, the Tower Junkies know what happens, anyway.

This level of depth and the kind of world that King had created was like nothing I had ever read before, and the more I read in the series, the more of a junkie I became. It was the first time I had read a novel or a series and thought to myself, “Fuck, I wish I could write something even half as good”. Oh, I had enjoyed many, many great books before. But there was something about The Dark Tower – that level of ambition and scale, that bizarre combo of fantasy and western – that was so original and so different to anything else I had read. It proved to me that not all fantasy series were about sorcery or sword fights, wizards or warriors, or at least, not in the usual sense. There are many classic fantasy concepts within the Tower books, but done in such an unusual way as to feel completely original.

Just as awesome though was the fact that the universe of the Tower wasn’t just limited to those 7 (now 8) novels. I soon began to realise that many of King’s books, even his most popular novels, connected to the series in many ways, sometimes tiny, sometimes colossal. In Salem’s Lot, there’s a priest, Father Callahan, a relatively minor character in the book who later grows to become a far more major player in Roland’s quest for the Tower. There’s a passing reference in The Drawing of the Three to another King fantasy novel called The Eyes of the Dragon, particularly its villain. There’s a ton of others that I’m not even going to begin to list (other than the two I’ve just listed, of course,) because it really is such a big universe, and it’s great how one author is able to tell so many completely different stories in completely different genres in one particular universe.

I’m not gonna lie, I’d love to write anything with that sense of scale. To have that skill of telling completely different stories – stories on Earth, stories on other worlds, fantasy stories, horror stories, love stories, fucked up stories (especially fucked up stories) – and yet still have them take place in one universe or even multiverse, through connections big or small. Lately, I’ve been thinking that’s probably more ambitious than I should be aiming for. To be honest, there’s only one (maybe two) stories I have in my head right now, and the one element that’s been influenced by the Dark Tower the most (i.e. the genre of epic Western fantasy), I’m mildly considering just throwing out for a slightly-tighter focus. Which, considering that I originally aimed to do a very British take on something as wonderfully American as The Dark Tower, would be a little bit ironic, but so far, the much smaller focused writing in ordinary England is much, much easier to write than other world strangeness. For the moment, I think it’s definitely easier if I just concentrate on character creation and development and make each of them feel as believable and grounded as possible. Because that’s the real hook for me with King’s writing: his wonderfully written characters.

One more thing I need to say: how this series changed my life beyond the writing itself, and in a big way. Almost 6 years ago, I joined a message board, thedarktower.com (now thedarktower.org), which as you could probably guess, was a message board for fans of the Dark Tower books to discuss them. Well, it’s partially that, anyway. More often than not, I’ve discussed a ton of other shit: TV shows, films, other books, life/Doctor Who and much more shit. I’ve signed up with a few message boards in my time, but the Tower message board is the only one I use on a regular basis, and that’s entirely down to having one of the greatest online communities out there. I’ve not only made so many great friends on that board, I even had my first serious relationship because of it, and while things didn’t work out, I’m still grateful that it went as well as it did and that we’re still friends.

There are times when being a fan is difficult because other fans can ruin the experience for you. They can get overly possessive, they can be pretentious sods who think newbies don’t even count as fans, become ridiculously aggressive over alternate interpretations or particular points of a story that others love etc., and it can really ruin the experience, at times. My fellow Tower junkies however always restore my faith in both fandom and, frankly, humanity in general by being the most awesome guys to know.

I love you guys!