The Luthor Line – An Explanation

I’m putting the Beatles post off til Friday, to address a point that came up more than any other in the (shockingly positive) comments to my last post. I said:

a highlight of the first half of this first year will be the redemption of Lex Luthor – in a forty-page story, set in one room, with just the two of them talking, and Superman using logic to convince Luthor to turn his talents towards good (Luthor then joins Superman’s little research team).

Now, everyone said some variant of “Luthor’s problems are emotional, not logical”. So let me explain how I see this issue playing out (in very broad strokes).

First, the background – the idea for this came from some stuff I’ve read on game theory. Fundamentally, if you assume that human beings are finite, then any interaction between two people who have conflicting goals, can be modelled as a game, in much the same way as chess, in which either there is a strategy by which one person *has* to win, or it can only possibly end in a draw. (I’m skipping a lot of stuff here, but you get the idea).

Now, looking at Superman vs Luthor as a chess game is an interesting way to look at it. Superman *HAS* to win, of course – if we’re doing a cap to ‘the Superman story’, Superman has to beat Luthor.

So we have a situation. Superman and Luthor, together in a room, having a conversation. (It would actually be good to have it over a game of chess, but that’s been so overused it would be silly. I can still picture all the story beats done that way, though, and were it not so cliched it would be powerful. Superman is trying to persuade Luthor to reform, while Luthor is essentially trying to persuade Superman to commit suicide.

Now, the important part here is that Luthor *thinks* he’s the epitome of rational humanity – in fact, of course, he’s a vicious sociopath – and so Superman is entirely logical, calm, and serene. Luthor gets steadily angrier, and actively tries to kill Superman at least three times during the story – at first with a complex, subtle plan involving hidden kryptonite lasers, but by the end just lunging at him and attacking him with his bare hands.

But after each of these attacks fails, Luthor becomes somewhat embarrassed, and reverts to talking (apparently) calmly with Superman. Superman *NEVER* mentions these attacks, and only moves minimally to block them, before continuing with the conversation as if nothing happened.

And then suddenly, towards the end, Luthor breaks down weeping, essentially saying “What have I been doing with my life?!” and joins up with Superman. The impression given by the comic – and one which would be at least partly true – is that Luthor has realised that Superman actually *is* the rational man he merely wishes to be, and he has been trying to kill someone who really does have all the best characteristics he’d like to think he possesses himself. He’s shamed by the contrast between Superman’s calmness and his own viciousness.

For the most part, Superman is using absolutely logical arguments – he might talk about the proof that game-theoretically, altruism is an optimal strategy, or stuff like that – it would be very dry reading just Superman’s side, but the conflict would come from Luthor trying – and failing – to control his anger and resentment.

But there’s another level. Superman hasn’t wanted to tell anyone his plans, of course, til they’re close to completion, but he’s telling Luthor. The information is drip-fed, in such a way that to the reader it seems like part of the natural conversation. Only very small bits of information are given Luthor – but enough that he’s figured out Superman’s plan. It comes in sentences like:

“There are an infinite number of universes out there, Lex. In many of them, we’re friends rather than enemies. Can you imagine how much easier both our lives would be?”

“If you would just work with me instead of fighting me… my job would be over by now. Do you understand me? My job would be over.”

And so on. Just a few things, but Luthor’s breakdown comes at least in part because he realises that if he just works with Superman – does the hardest thing he can imagine doing – not only will the universe be infinitely better off, but Superman will leave it. Luthor can win the thing he wants more than anything – a universe without Superman – simply by co-operating.

Superman beats Luthor because by doing it Superman’s way, they can *both* win.

Pop-Drama – Superman

I really am returning to proper bloggery now. The last month or six weeks have been some of the hardest in recent years for me – not because of anything especially bad happening for the most part, but I’ve just been overwhelmed with work (in the last four weeks I’ve been given new responsibilities at work, co-authored a paper, and completed two projects for my course, while also trying to help my wife through an illness and work on PEP!). But that’s mostly settled down now (though I have about a million personal emails to get through). So I’m going to go back to my old ways with posting.

I’ve not written much about comics recently, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because comics analysis takes a lot more mental energy than any other kind of writing I do. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and how to deal with him in my pop-drama series.

Superman, you see, is actually one character where the setup is more or less right – but everyone still gets it wrong. With the exception of All Star Superman, and a few of Kurt Busiek’s issues (before his plans were repeatedly altered by editorial), nobody’s done a decent comic about the character in decades – you get one good Superman story every ten years or so on average (last decade, All-Star, the nineties – the issue of Hitman he features in, the eighties Moore’s work and arguably Crisis On Infinite Earths).

There are three problems, really, with Superman. The first is that there’s not, yet, a good ending for the Superman ‘myth’ – both Grant Morrison and Alan Moore tried, but neither story is considered the ‘canonical’ end to the story even in the way that Dark Knight Returns is for Batman. One could have argued that the original Crisis On Infinite Earths functioned that way for the real, Siegel and Shuster, Superman, but of course Geoff Johns had to go and write Infinite Crisis

The problem with all endings to the Superman story that have been thought of are that they involve Superman giving up and retiring. This makes no sense with the character as he’s appeared for more than seventy years, but it’s the only way people have been able to come up with an ending that doesn’t involve him being utterly defeated. Neither of these seems like a fitting end for the character.

The second problem is that writers who can’t get a handle on the character – who think he’s too powerful or whatever – try to make the comic not about Superman, but about the supporting characters. There were whole months at a time in the nineties where the comic wasn’t about Superman and his adventures but about the blind daughter of a right-wing columnist for the Daily Planet. We’re seeing something similar at the moment – of the four current Super-titles, Superman only appears in one.

This makes a certain amount of sense – the Daily Planet in itself could be a good ‘story engine’, much in the same way as Grant Morrison’s Manhattan Guardian (link goes to Justin’s blog) could. But all the characters in it are ‘secondary characters’ rather than the star of the story, and they all have ended up with their own huge, baroque back-stories that no-one can possibly follow (remember how Perry White and his wife had a son, who died, who was really the illegitimate son of Lex Luthor, who is himself posing as his own son after faking his own death? Neither does anyone else…)

And finally, there’s the fact that in a continuing serial – whether part of a shared universe or otherwise – Superman can’t really change anything. The character is, of necessity, ineffectual, and spurious reasons have to be made up for him not to, for example, remove dictators (“humanity must run its own affairs, I would be corrupted by the power” – simply not a good reason for refusing to rectify obvious evils).

So we need to solve these problems.

I’m going to assume here that we can ignore the ‘DC Universe’ and only look at two comics, Superman and Action Comics, but that these two comics will continue to be published indefinitely. So this is what I’d do were I to be given the writer/editorship of those two titles, and allowed to do what I wanted with them with no thought as to how they’d interact with the wider ‘DC Universe’:

Firstly, I’d announce, very publicly, that we were splitting the two books. Superman would be about the adventures of Superman, while Action Comics would become like the old Superman Family comics – all about the adventures of Lois Lane, girl reporter, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, and so on. I would announce that to make the point about the separation of these two, Superman would not be appearing in Action for a year, and his supporting cast would not be appearing in his title. After that year, *Clark Kent* but not Superman would appear in Action, and while the Daily Planet characters could have whatever adventures they wanted in Action, they would only appear in Superman as supporting characters, firmly in the background.

I realise that this sounds a bit like the stuff I’m complaining about, but it wouldn’t be…

My first issue of Superman would have Clark Kent asking for a leave of absence from the Planet for a few months, to write a book. But really, it would be to start changing things around. He’s got tired of ignoring systemic abuses, and he’s going to change things.

And while he was gone, Action would be totally reinvented. Superman would literally not be mentioned once, even in passing. Nor do we mention *ANY* previous story, or any Superman villains – no Brainiac or Luthor or anything. This title stands on its own. There would be a year-long story about a conspiracy within government, being investigated by Lois Lane, which would be the backup feature throughout the year, while Jimmy Olsen would quickly become the star of the story (each of Jimmy’s adventures would turn up clues to the big picture Lois was working on).

Over the twelve issues, he would be kidnapped by aliens who want to learn more about Earth’s rock and roll music, discover he was the precise double of an obscure European dictator and thus be targeted by assassins, get infected with a mutated virus, spread by sneezing, which causes everyone who catches the disease to turn into another Jimmy Olsen, get caught in a time distortion field which makes him experience events in the opposite order to everyone else (this issue would be told in such a way that you could read it page one top left panel to page 24 bottom right panel, and read it as Jimmy experiences it, or read it backwards and read it as everyone around him experiences events, and have both stories make sense), pass through into our universe (this one would be a photocomic), accidentally enter into a pact with the devil by not reading the small print on a car rental agreement, get made ‘editor for the day’ by Perry White to show him that Perry’s job is harder than he thinks, meet J’mi Ulzen, time travelling cub reporter from the 35th century, go undercover in a criminal gang that turns out to be made up entirely of undercover reporters, obtain an enchanted camera that takes photos of how things will be half an hour in the future, nearly become the cause of an intergalactic war, as Space Queens Bheti and V’ron’ka, of two different galaxies, both want him as their consort, and in the last issue…

But we’re meant to be talking about Superman, aren’t we?

So in the Superman title, we will, to an extent, mirror the history of the character. He starts off as a social crusader, terrorising slum landlords, usurious credit card companies and so on. He starts getting involved in politics – an endorsement from Superman will win elections for people, worldwide.

He cures cancer. He removes dictators from power. He does, in short, all the things that we would do, had we Superman’s powers. He also engages in some pure physics research (with that beardy professor, Emil Hamilton, from the 90s? No reason not to use old characters so long as we don’t have to explain them), who infodumps various bits about quantum physics.

But he doesn’t just do this, of course – there’s also the standard supervillain stuff to contend with, and a highlight of the first half of this first year will be the redemption of Lex Luthor – in a forty-page story, set in one room, with just the two of them talking, and Superman using logic to convince Luthor to turn his talents towards good (Luthor then joins Superman’s little research team).

After much talk about ‘the device’, Superman then sets off on his ultimate adventure – he flies literally to the other side of the universe, carrying a small gadget whose purpose is unexplained with him. It’s implied that this takes a *long* time, and on the way we have adventures involving Mongul and Warworld, Darkseid, Adam Strange and the whole host of DC cosmic characters – in each one Superman ends the story having made a *huge* difference to something.

And then he gets to the farthest point possible – the antipodal point of the universe, the literal opposite end of the universe from Earth, and he turns his gadget on. And we see Lex and Emil, back in Metropolis, doing the same (Superman can see them using a superluminal communicator of some kind). And a light suffuses the universe…

They’ve built a universal resonator. A machine which literally turns the universe into heaven. There will be no more death, no more pain, no suffering. Every living thing in the universe will live forever in a state of infinite bliss.

And then Superman pulls out another gadget.

“Emil, you told me about the infinite number of other universes out there. I’m going to visit.”

“But… but we’ve got heaven now! Perfection! Why do you want to leave that?”

“I don’t”

“So why are you going?”

“Because some of those other universes don’t have a Superman to save them. Someone’s got to do it…”

“Surely you’ve done enough!”

“I can’t let anyone suffer any more. There’s been too much suffering already”

“But… there’s an infinite number of them!”

“Yes. It might take a little while”. And giving a confident smile (like the one I picture in my head, drawn by George Perez but I can’t think from which story), he steps through a doorway, through which is coming a blazing light.

And the last issue of the twelve-issue run of Action features Jimmy Olsen investigating rumours of a flying man in Metropolis, and at the end of the story, Jimmy and Lois are introduced to a new reporter, from out of town, who’s just starting work at the Planet. His name is Clark Kent. And we end with a Curt Swan wink to the reader.

(Tomorrow – White Album Post 1)

Linkblogging For 26/11/09

Apologies for the lack of new contend. I do have a few posts planned for the next few days: HELP! tomorrow, James Bond on Saturday, a review of Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel Grandville on Sunday, but I’ve been quite tired for the last few days and also planning stuff for PEP! – my new magazine, out next month, as well as planning my contribution to the Mindless Ones’ zine.

In the meantime, have some links:
Jazz Hands Serious Business is unimpressed with the Lib Dems’ new social network ACT (I’m on it myself, but haven’t found a real use for it, and suspect it, like a lot of online campaigning stuff, is preaching to the converted. But we’ll see).

Millennium talks about how the banking ‘loans’ were more like outright fraud, and reviews The Empty Child, from the first series of the Welsh series.

Laurie Penny thinks that there should be no feminism without trans feminism.

And a couple more people have come up with reworkings of classic characters – Gavin B has done Doctor Who, as has pillock, while Rab has done a Tarzan.

Response to the Doctor Who Responses (Pop-Drama 2.5)

I’ve been away a few days, and the responses to the Doctor Who post have brought up some very interesting points, so I thought I’d go through those I’ve not yet responded to as a separate post (there are some I’ve still not responded to even after this. And I owe a couple of you emails, too – I’ve not forgotten, just been rushed off my feet). Incidentally, Pillock has written a good Tarzan one…

Zom:Yep. Sounds good. I would want to see the Tardis, though.

I always want to like Doctor Who more than I do – unfortunately the elements I want to see are gestured towards, or have shown up once or twice, but simply aren’t there enough

Out of interest, have you seen the first few stories? Get hold of the box set The Beginning, which contains the first three stories. It only costs about nine quid, and before they knew what a ‘Doctor Who story’ was, it was an *amazing* TV programme…

Should add that a man attempting to construct his past from the well of infinity strikes me as astoundingly profound and beautiful, not to mention existentially awesome/terrifying. You could bump into soooo many dramatic, philosophical, mystical, psychological, and – and this is a word I’m loathe to use but it just seems so right in this context – spiritual questions/vistas along the way.

Exactly. And it’s something that is, I think, a genuinely *new* SF idea. The broken past thing comes from conversations with Tilt, but the more I think about the idea of trying to literally reconstruct one’s own past, the more possibilities there are to play with…

Andrew, I’ve been thinking about heroic hyping the X-Men pretty much all year, but have been put off by the horrible facts of Morrison’s experience on the book. In conversation with Amy yesterday it occurred to me that, fuck it, we should go further and write something that fits our vision for the title. Mine our thinking to its core so that whatever we find doesn’t look sue-able and get that bad boy out there into the world – I can guarantee it won’t smell like any other superhero comic (as long as we can get the right artist!). I think you should do the same with this. You have the passion, the skill and the vision. Write a better Dr Who, call it something else, and sell it.

Should we form a pact?

Yes, we should. This kind of thing is one reason why I’m going to set up the Newniverse site, as somewhere for people to play with other people’s characters with the numbers filed off.

I actually have a number of ideas for a Doctor-alike – I’ve got a quite detailed proposal in my head for this, incorporating little bits of the Phantom Stranger, Sandman, The Spirit and old EC Comics to replace the Doctor-specific stuff, while still being at core the thing I posted the other day. The main problem is that no matter how much I change the surface details, the main character is the Doctor – all the dialogue I hear in my head is in the Doctor’s rhythms.

That wouldn’t be so bad, except that there’s a huge cottage industry already in ersatz Doctor Who – video series like The Stranger, audio dramas involving The Professor or The Dominie, the Faction Paradox books/comics/audios, the Time Hunter novels, Iris Wildthyme, Bernice Summerfield, PROBE, Kandor City… there’s even apparently a film, Zygon: When Being You Just Isn’t Enough that’s a soft-porn film about Zygons. Get an out-of-work character actor from the 70s, or pay Robert Holmes’ estate a fiver to license the name of an old monster, and you too can have your own direct-to-video ‘Whoniverse’ series, with Mark Gatiss in it…

For a long time I imagined the audience for my thing would cross over enough with the Doctor Who audience that it would be perceived as being another of those things – if you have a character who talks and acts like the Doctor, in Doctor Who type adventures, it looks like that (not that there’s anything wrong with those things per se, but they’re not what I want to be doing). But the character in the Welsh series is so different now that I honestly think a mainstream audience would not make the connection.

The main problem for me at this point is that were I to do it by myself, the only option for serial publication (which it really needs) would be comics (or audio-drama podcasts?) which would require collaboration with other people (I can’t draw), and I’m not a very good collaborator…

But in principle, I *REALLY* want to do it, especially since I’m getting more confident in my own abilities (bought Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic mag yesterday – PEP is going to be better, no contest).

Gavin B: You’re really taking the Doctor so far back to his roots it’s before he even erupted above ground. This ‘amnesiac Doctor’ comes from early planning meetings, doesn’t he?

(By which I mean you’re sourcing your Doctor from that root. You’re talking about much else, but that’s really undoing the knots they subsequently got him in.)

Not consciously – the amnesia bit came via conversations with Tilt, but that may well have been a half-conscious influence. But I’m definitely trying to take the show back to its very early phase – much as I love the show as it grew, I would dearly love to have had twenty-six years of the show that’s in the The Beginning box set…

It also occurs to me that an amnesiac Doctor would be a better identification figure for a young audience. He wouldn’t recognise, say, returning Ice Warriors any more than they would.


Gavin RI usually try not to talk about Doctor Who on the internet (I’m scared of continuity nerds, I like to refer to the main character as “Doctor Who”, and I’ve been involved in online Star Wars fandom enough to know that online fandom is not a good way to live your life), but this seems like a safe place to come out.

Don’t worry, you’re among friends here. No-one will tell…

So, I like Doctor Who, and I like your version even more. I especially like the way you raise awkward questions about identity, memory and truth but refuse to give easy answers to them.

Thank you.

The amnesiac thing has so much potential for other genres too eg historical fiction. Imagine Richard III, Oliver Cromwell or Douglas Haig trying to work out who they were and what they’d done just by reading what other people had written about them.

On a semi-related note to that, check out the Big Finish audio The Kingmaker. I can’t say too much about the plot without spoiling it, but it involves Richard III and does touch on that in a round-about way.

I’m not sure if stories would need to be 2 episodes. Blakes 7 packed an awful lot into a single 50 minute episode even though it had more main characters than Doctor Who and often had 2 concurrent plots. Although there were a few story arcs, most episodes were standalone stories. The Professionals was even faster paced – like a film compressed into half the time – but in that case they didn’t have much world building to do. In contrast, a lot of the old-school Who that I’ve rewatched over the last year or so seems very slow with lots of unnecessary padding. If you’re going for mystery and uncertainty then less might be more.

Blake’s 7 is still all set in the same society and time-period, though. I agree that a lot of Doctor Who is padded, but that happens more in stories longer than 90 minutes. Even some of the six-parters are fairly tight, especially when Bob Holmes was involved in some capacity or other, and the four-parters seem about the right length to me. It’s when you get anything over four parts that the problems start – I love Pertwee’s first series, but if they’d cut all those seven-parters down to four, it would have been FAR better.

I wouldn’t want to be absolutely dogmatic about it, but I wouldn’t want anything as long as The Daleks’ Master Plan, or Trial Of A Time-Lord. That said, Keeper Of Traken/Logopolis/Castrovalva make up one twelve-part story and that works, and The War Games is surprisingly riveting even though it’s ten parts. The format could be changed around. But the only two times Proper Doctor Who did a forty-five minute story (Edge Of Destruction and The Sontaran Experiment) are far too far the other way…

Also can the male companion be wearing nothing but a thong, a bow tie and lots of body oil? Well, it’s for the mums…

Unfortunately, patriarchical body-image fascism means that conventionally ‘attractive’ women look appropriately helpless, but conventionally ‘attractive’ men look perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, because ‘attractive’ and ‘muscular’ are almost synonymous in men but not in women. This means that the male companion will only be ‘for’ that subset of mums who are attracted to pale-looking overweight asthmatics. Don’t blame me, blame the patriarchy.

Kieran:I really love the set-up you’ve described here, really suggests that time is a wilderness, and makes the doctor mythic yet human, but I’m suprised that despite some fairly specific complaints* you mention neither sets nor music. Or does “Tangerine Dream and high-budget theatre” go without saying?

Sets and music are difficult. I definitely have opinions, but music poses a problem. I LOVE the sound of the original series (before everything became cheap synths), especially during the period where the Radiophonic Workshop people were doing ‘special sound’ and adding electronic effects to the real instruments, and I think Delia Derbyshire’s original version of the theme is close to perfect in every way.

The problem is that these days people are as jaded when it comes to music as they are when it comes to special effects. Nothing sounds *strange* to people any more. If they hear a new sound, no-one thinks “How did they do that?”, they think “They just pressed some buttons on a computer”. I’d want the music on Doctor Who to sound as strange and new as it did back the. I have very strong ideas about how I’d do that (lots of tuned percussion, analogue synths, ondes martinu, and so on) but even so I’m not sure it’d work.

I’ve put together a quick Spotify playlist to give a sort of idea of how I’d have it done. However, bear in mind that all of that is music designed for *listening* and structured as songs/pieces rather than as support for drama. (For those who can’t access Spotify, playlist contains Cornelius, The Tornadoes, Zappa, Stockhausen, Stereolab, Soft Machine, Bartok, National Pep, Don Preston and Edgard Varese). Just listen to the different timbres rather than the melodies.

I don’t have much of an opinion on *sets* as such, but I do have a related opinion which is that the show should be shot multi-camera wherever possible. The art of multi-camera TV is almost lost now, but it was much closer to the theatre than the cinema (almost like giving a performance in the round, in fact), and Doctor Who owes a lot to that theatrical tradition. Everything about a TV show changes – the choices of shot, the performances, what you can and can’t do – when you choose between single- and multi-camera, and I prefer multi-camera. I’d also want it not to be ‘film-look’ (that glossy look of most current drama, especially adventure stories) just because I find that look aesthetically unpleasant.

*I must confess I found your complaint about the Doctor’s age last time you wrote about the issue rather short sighted, a “but he’s not *my* green lantern!” sort of a deal, especially since for all his awful mugging Tenant does have a Kyle MacLachlan style natural trustworthyness which seems essential to the character. But the tone you’ve settled on here really does call for an older actor.

I can see how you’d think that, but it’s not *quite* the same thing – I hope I’ve made that clearer now…

Wesley:Also, the actor I’d hire to play the Doctor–if I could, somehow, convince anybody to take the job–would be Tom Waits. (I’m thinking mostly of his performances as cheerfully odd characters in Mystery Men and Wristcutters.)

Interesting choice. Definitely not my choice, but I could see it working in a strange way. My choices would be Graham Crowden, Eric Sykes or Don Warrington. Two people from the series I could actually see playing the Doctor as I envisage him would be William Russel (who played original companion Ian Chesterton) or, actually, Colin Baker (now he’s older and looks totally different, playing a different incarnation of the Doctor would be an interesting thing, and I think he’d do a good job of it).

Pop-Drama: I Cross The Void Beyond The Mind or A Man Is The Sum Of His Memories, A Time Lord Even More So

Going from the easiest character to get a handle on, we come to the hardest one.

Millennium Elephant’s Daddy Richard has actually sent me his own idea of how to revamp the Doctor, which I’ve carefully not looked at prior to writing this so I can go in with a clear head (though I’m looking forward to reading it as soon as I finish this). However, I’ve talked about the Doctor with so many people that I’m *certain* there are going to be chunks of good ideas from Tilt, or Jennie, or Alex Wilcock, or half a dozen other friends of mine, in the mix here. ETA Specifically, the idea of the Doctor’s past being broken apparently comes from a conversation I had with Tilt a few years ago. Credit where it’s due

Whereas the problem for Tarzan is that the character’s millieu is fine, but the character himself isn’t usable any more without some major restructuring, the Doctor has been restructured to death when the original character was and is a great one.

One major appeal of the Doctor as a character, originally, was his mystery – hence the name, Doctor Who? – but the mystery was slowly eroded over the years. By the time the TV series had finished, we knew the name of his planet, the name of the last three presidents of the planet, the name of his tutor, what order he belonged to, his nickname at school, his favourite type of jazz… the Doctor’s origins are probably as thoroughly documented as those of any fictional character. Just compare Sherlock Holmes, a fairly similar character – we know he has a brother, and that he went to university, and that’s pretty much it.

To his credit, Andrew Cartmel, the last script editor of the show, recognised that this lack of mystery was a problem, and made some steps to rectify the damage that had been done (mostly by his immediate predecessor in the job, Eric Saward). However, this mostly consisted of having the Doctor go round saying “Woo, I am so very mysterious and spooky. What deep, dark secrets am I hiding? Whatever they are, they’re very mysterious ones, for I am a sinister manipulator whose plans have wheels within wheels.”

After the TV series finished, the New Adventures line of books continued along these lines, but eventually *revealed* why he was so mysterious and spooky – it was because he was the reincarnation of the secret most important founder of all Time Lord society and much more special than everyone else… you get the idea already without me having to go into any more details.

One of the few things the Welsh series has done right is getting rid of most of this backstory, by saying it all blew up offscreen between series and barely referencing any of it except in passing. But the backstory’s still *there* – the Doctor is not a mystery any more.

So we make him a mystery even to himself.

In my show, Doctor Who (yes, that *is* his name – check the credits of every pre-1980 episode if you don’t believe me) is a doddery old man, seemingly forgetful and distant, but capable of staggering insight and with utter moral courage. He travels the universe in a ship called the TARDIS, which we never see (but do hear), and which we NEVER see the inside of. He has two companions – a woman to do all the fighting and a man to get tied to the railway tracks.

The Doctor can at times show an almost eidetic memory, but other times he’ll say things like “Daleks? What are they?” At first – for maybe the first dozen stories or so – it’ll seem like he’s going senile, but then one of his companions will mention a story we’ve seen, to be greeted with “Hm? What’s that? Nonsense! Cybermen couldn’t even survive in the Venusian atmosphere!” (or something along those lines) – and we are shown absolute proof that this is the case. That story could never have happened.

Because the Doctor is a Trickster character, and that involves embracing multiplicity and paradox – but sometimes that can go too far. The Doctor has travelled forward, backward and sideways in time enough, meddling all the time, that his own timeline has fractured. He no longer has a consistent history, and the unspoken reason for everything he’s doing is to build himself a past.

The question “Doctor Who?” is one he actually has to ask of himself – he has to build a history around himself, try to create a consistent timeline where none exists. He has to decide if he was ‘loomed’ or born, if the Hartnell Doctor was the first or if the ones Morbius saw when he went “Back! Back into your past!” came before him. If the TV movie counted.

But understand, this is NEVER stated explicitly. NEVER. Millennium complained, quite rightly, about the new Star Trek film and Lawrence Miles’ book Interference, saying:

if that’s what you want to do, then just call it “Doctor Who Unbound” and do it! Don’t lumber yourself, and all the rest of us, with a hundred and sixty thousand words of justification for why you are allowed to do it.

A series based around fixing continuity points and coming up with elaborate justifications for changes is pointless. So we just do it. Have a multi-Doctor team up where one or two of the Doctors are familiar ones, but others are Doctors who never appeared on TV before. Have him remember the events of the Cushing films as if they happened. Shred the concepts of ‘canon’ and ‘continuity’, but do it in such a way it provides a powerful motivator for *character action*. The Doctor’s choices now don’t affect just his future, but his past as well. He not only has to live with the consequences of his actions, he has to *have lived with them*.

But it should all be subtext – this would be very gradually revealed over the course of maybe five years’ worth of stories, and even at the end we wouldn’t know what the Doctor’s new past was, just that he had one.

The format of the show would be like Colin Baker’s first series – forty-five minute episodes, all two-parters. Anything less than 90 minutes is simply not long enough to tell a decent story in, in a genre where you have to set up not only new characters but a whole new world, while the cliffhanger seems to me to be a fairly important part of the show as it was. Given that people nowadays have no attention span and won’t wait four weeks for a single story, that seems like the optimum format. Each story should be complete in itself – while there should be continuity of character, and progress through the series, the series shouldn’t be based on ‘story arcs’ in the modern sense, where you have to watch every episode or you’re lost. It should be possible to treat each two-parter as, to all intents and purposes, a feature film.

The Doctor himself should be written as four parts Sherlock Holmes to one part each Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, and should be played by a very elderly-seeming, patrician gentleman who projects dignity. There should be no more than *one* old monster/adversary per year (Tom Baker only did one Cyberman story and two Dalek ones in seven years in the role – that seems about right to me) and if at all possible each series should contain stories in several distinct genres (broad farce, psychological horror, hard science fiction etc).

But most of all, getting rid of the baggage surrounding the character, and removing his past altogether, allows me to make one very important point – possibly the biggest thing the Welsh series gets wrong:
The Doctor is special because of what he does, not who he is.

Since the mid-80s, almost every take on the character has been infected with Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey crap (and if there’s one thing I wish I could purge from our culture altogether, it’s that horrible, awful idea that a good story must needs be propaganda for the ideas of predestination and rule by aristocracy). If the Doctor is The Other, legendary founder of Time Lord society or even more than that… if he’s the godlike figure the new series makes him, then he’s just special because he was born special, and you weren’t, so tough luck.

If, on the other hand, he’s a wanderer with no past and no future, forming himself one experience at a time, the ultimate self-made man, then he’s someone you can aspire to be. You or I will never bring down the Daleks by applying handwavium and being special gods, but we *could* stand up to tyranny because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what the Doctor should do. Other than the TARDIS, which is just a macguffin to get the Doctor into place for the story, the Doctor should do nothing that requires any abilities which it’s not possible for a human being in the early twenty-first century to have. He should know more than everyone else, but because he’s *learned* it. He gets out of prison cells using his wits, not a sonic screwdriver. At the moment, anyone watching the Welsh series can’t ask “What would the Doctor do in this situation?” because the answer is “some sort of deus ex machina handwave involving nanites and the sonic screwdriver”. That would change on my show.

More of these in the next few days.

Pop-Drama 1 : The Jungle VIP

tarzanI’m starting my look at how to ‘rejuvenate’ various pop-culture/genre characters with Tarzan, because his is the most obvious, and I’d be very astonished if someone hadn’t done this already.

The thing about Tarzan is, if you just look at the character, it’s almost impossible for anyone today to write him as a hero. Here you’ve got a member of the white aristocracy, living in Africa, having chosen to ‘return to nature’ and ‘strip off the thin veneer of civilisation’. There’s a very patronising imperialist… not even subtext, as much as surtext here.

So I propose we go with it all the way.

John Clayton III, Viscount Greystoke, returned to Britain in the 1970s after being discovered by the Porter family – his own father, a minor colonial administrator in a small African colony, had died during the armed insurgency that had brought about the colony’s independence, and everybody had assumed the boy had died along with them. His claims that his father had been killed by a giant ape were dismissed as a combination of the racism common to his class and his imperfect understanding of English – he was clearly confusing the words ‘gorilla’ and ‘guerilla’.

Along with his wife, the young Clayton became something of a mascot for the Clermont Set – the group of billionaire right-wing aristocrats that included James Goldsmith (whose son is now environmental advisor to the Conservative party) and his brother Teddy (co-founder of the Green Party), murderer Lord Lucan, asset-stripper Jim Slater, and John Aspinall (the owner of a zoo where the keepers are encouraged to socialise with the animals, resulting in a ludicrous number of keeper deaths a year, who called for the death of the majority of the human race in order to save the planet, and who tried to engineer a fascist coup in Britain around this time).

While most of the Clermont Set were absurd, repulsive figures who pontificated about the environment from a position of grotesque privilege, Clayton was different. He had known real hardship, having had to fend for himself from an incredibly early age. He was lean and muscular, unlike his corpulent mentors, and also very charming, and he was simultaneously principled and trusting of his new friends.

And he shared one important characteristic with them – because of his upbringing, when he’d not known a single other human being from the ages of one to sixteen, he had absolutely no regard for human life. So he became a fervent supporter of their ‘law of the jungle’ philosophy – a very dangerous mix of right-wing libertarianism, environmental fundamentalism and fascism. So he moved back to the jungle to become an eco-warrior. In a very literal sense.

Tarzan has committed to protecting the animals from the ‘savages’ who are running the country he grew up in, and he has absolutely no compunction about killing people to do this. He will protect those who still live tribally, in a rather patronising manner, but even those are fair game if they hunt protected species. He is charming, handsome, and *utterly* self-controlled, knowing exactly what every muscle in his body is doing at any moment, and exactly what’s going on around him – skills he had to pick up to survive in a wild environment – so looking permanently relaxed except when he leaps into action.

But most of the time, Tarzan is doing ‘the right thing’, but for what most people would consider utterly wrong reasons. He’s perfectly willing to lay down his life to protect animals, and will go to huge lengths to save the rainforest he grew up in, but there’s not an ounce of compassion or empathy in him. He does it just because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, without even really understanding what ‘right thing to do’ means.

This means that for most purposes, we can still tell normal ‘Tarzan jungle adventures’ as before – bad thing happens, Tarzan swings down on creeper, saves the day, job done. And you start the series with this kind of story – the background is only drip-fed in slowly over the course of the series, as you begin to realise what kind of person Tarzan really is.

The problem with this, of course, is that it damages the character for others. And this is why Jane is an important character.

Jane, when she married Tarzan, was a rather dizzy socialite, well-meaning but utterly uninformed about the world outside a small circle of the super-rich. When they moved to England, she never particularly liked her husband’s new friends, more just because they seemed personally unpleasant than for any other reason, but as they spent most of their time together in an exclusively masculine environment, she didn’t particularly mind it. She agreed to move back to Africa with her husband, partly because you do what your husband does, partly because she’d always liked animals, and partly because it sounded like quite a fun lark to spend a couple of years living like ‘a primitive’.

But after being dropped into a situation she could never have imagined, Jane discovers she actually *cares* about this stuff. She actually cares about animals, nursing them back to health. She actually worries about the morality of interfering with tribal cultures, but also of denying those people the benefits that come with western civilisation. In short, she grows up. And she starts to become horrified at what her husband actually is.

So the second ‘arc’ of stories is simply Jane trying to connect Tarzan’s (usually) correct actions to correct thoughts, trying to turn his real love for her into compassion for other people. Partly, this is done by gathering a group of assistants for him, who he cares about first because they’re essential to ‘the mission’, but as time goes on this becomes a more general real affection. These characters can also function to help generate adventures, and should come from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible (a minor government official who feeds Tarzan information, a doctor who helps treat his injuries, a criminal who’s on the run and hiding out in the area of the jungle where Tarzan lives, and so on).

She succeeds, and over the course of a year or two we essentially see him grow up, and turn into a fully mature human being, who remains in the jungle because he cares, rather than because it’s the right thing to do.

Touchstone characters – at the start, B’Wana Beast, Rorshach, James Bond, Frank Miller Batman. By the end, Tom Strong, Robin Hood, Grant Morrison Batman.

The Pop-Drama Manifesto – A Call To Arms

This blog started out as primarily a comics blog, but over the last few months there’ve been fewer and fewer posts about comics. There’s a reason for that.

I’ve been reading as many comics as ever for the last few months, but aside from Grant Morrison’s comics and League: Century, none of them have been about anything. Detective and Wednesday Comics and Strange Tales and so on have all been enjoyable, but there’s not been a new idea in the stories of any of them. (Williams puts new ideas into almost every panel as far as the art goes, but I simply don’t have the critical vocabulary to talk about art sensibly).

We’ve not got any drama in comics at the moment – and precious little in genre fiction as a whole.

I’m using ‘drama’ here as the closest term I could come up with for a concept I’ve never seen defined before. Most genre fiction at the moment is soap opera – the impact is entirely based on one’s feelings about the characters and one’s wish for them to be happy or otherwise. Whether that be wanting Supergirl to bring her father’s murderer to justice, or hoping the Welsh Doctor and Wose will find their true wuv together at long last, or hoping the Order will defeat Xykon, it’s all about one’s attachment to the characters.

Soap opera isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’m currently reading all the Superman/girl titles, and regularly read Order Of The Stick too) but it’s very hard to find anything to say about it. Most Doctor Who, most superhero stories, a good chunk of SF, have all been soap opera.

Drama (my definition) on the other hand, is what happens when you couple concern for the characters (as above) with actual ideas, and make them work together. Watchmen is drama – it’s full of ideas (about power, morality, free will, humanity, the comics form itself) while Blackest Night is soap opera. Doctor Who And The Silurians is drama while the Welsh series is soap opera.

Drama in this sense is not necessarily superior to soap opera, but I think on the whole it’s more worthwhile. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’ Teen Titans sold something like ten times more copies in the 80s than Alan Moore (and Totelben, Bissette, Veitch, Alcala etc)’s Swamp Thing, but the latter had ten times more ideas and is what has lasted. The latter is certainly easier to talk about.

Increasingly in genre fiction we’re given a choice between soap operatics, full of sound & fury, signifying nothing, on one side (most current superhero comics, Star Wars, the Star Trek film, most of the Welsh series) and on the other hand people who think they’re rather cleverer than they actually are, who think ideas are a substitute for good storytelling (many of the New Adventures people, Warren Ellis much of the time he’s on autopilot, Steven Moffatt).

Given a choice, I will choose the second group, because they have ambition, even if it fails (I’ve written about Joe Lidster’s Master in my Big Finish A Week series over many more enjoyable stories because even though it descends into the most unbearable fanwank, it’s still more interesting than the bulk of BF’s output, which is enjoyable but conservative), but I don’t *like* the second group, who often seem to have a near-sociopathic contempt of humanity, which shows in their characterisations.

(I read both groups, and enjoy work from both – I can enjoy the work of, say, Gail Simone, who falls squarely in the ‘soap opera’ group, because she’s *good* at characterisation).

VERY rarely, we see something that contains both ideas and a concern for the characters as human beings – something that couples the characters to theme in a way that qualifies it as true art. But as far as genre fiction goes, I can list *all* of the new work I’ve seen from the last year that does that in a few words – Seaguy, LOEG: Century, Batman & Robin, Anathem, Moon, Up, Unseen Academicals. Throw in Detective for the ideas in the art, and that’s about it. I’m sure there’s about that much again that I’ve not read or seen – but that’s it.

And frankly, that’s not good enough. I’m sick of laziness in SF, fantasy, horror and superhero stuff. It was justifiable when these were niche things for tiny audiences that could only attract hacks to them, but those genres now make billions upon billions of dollars a year, and have literally millions of people wanting to create work in them. We shouldn’t have to put up with incompetent, incoherent dreck like Countdown To Final Crisis or the New Earth episode of the Welsh series, or the new Star Trek film (which had some fine performances and effects, but forgot to pack a script).

At this point, highlights of the genres, like the two Nolan Batman films, or The Prisoner, or Watchmen, should be the minimum standards we look for.

“But could you do better?”

Yes. I think I could.

So for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post what I would do with various ‘big franchise’ characters – Doctor Who, Superman, James Bond, Tarzan, Star Trek, one or two others. I have no doubt that I’ll probably fall with most of these into the ‘thinks he’s cleverer than he is’ side I mention above, but I’ll be *trying* not to.

And I want you to do the same. Yes, YOU. This is a ‘meme’ for which I’m ‘tagging’ every one of the seven-to-ten-thousand people who read my blog in the average month. These pieces of modern-day mythology aren’t being treated right, so let’s take them back. I’m not talking about ‘fanfic’, which too often is concerned with continuity or wish-fulfillment (though I’d love to be pointed to examples where it isn’t). I’m talking about stripping these things down to their essence, tying them to new ideas, and seeing what they can do. More like the Mindless Ones’ Rogues Reviews.

But we also need new characters to tell new stories.

Once issue 1 of PEP is out, I’ll be starting up a second website along with this, for a thing I call the ‘Newniverse’, which will be a shared universe for storytelling. I’ve talked about this before on here, and got an enthusiastic enough response that now various other projects have either faltered or taken off, I’ll get it done. That site will be opening on January 1st. Ideally, we’ll do a POD book of stories from it every six months or year, depending how many people get involved.

I’m through being BORED with superheroes and spaceships – I’m ANGRY now. And I’m going to do something about it.