Fox’s Doctor

In 1996 a doctor immigrated to the United States from England. Not because he found a better hospital to work at, but because he found a different network. Yes, the individual in question was no medical doctor, but instead Doctor Who, transitioning from his traditional home on the BBC over to the Fox network. After a backdoor-pilot was produced and run as a movie of the week to blockbuster ratings, the network jumped at the chance to air the newly Americanized series, and slated it for a Sunday time slot in the 1997-1998 television season, pairing it with the fifth season of The X-Files to create a two hour block of science fiction.

The show had a bumpy start. Existing fans of the BBC series were constantly frustrated by the re-establishment of so many basic elements of the mythology (and even some changes to the core notions, such as the Doctor now being half human). New fans were often overwhelmed by the 35 years of history the show traveled with. It was an awkward middle ground, but the show persisted, pulling in 12-15 million viewers a week. Which was enough to keep the network happy, though not thrilled. An attempt was made to goose the ratings during the 1998 November sweeps when the two shows crossed over with a single two hour narrative that saw the Doctor help stem an invasion from the shape-shifting bounty hunters. This episode also saw the departure of Daphne Ashbrook as the Companion, killed during the climactic battle.

Ashbrook’s departure was the first kink in the armor. While long term fans of the British show understood that Companions came and went, and that even the Doctor changed faces every few years, American audiences were accustomed to more continuity in their programming. The second season also saw some cost cutting by the show. The Master, recast from the television movie, steals the TARDIS, stranding The Doctor in present-day San Fransisco for most of the season. While the show never went to truly exotic locales, due to budgetary restraints, this locking down of the Doctor changed the tenor of the show considerably.

The big news hit in the third season. While his TARDIS was restored, the show was losing viewers. Worse, it was about to lose its star. McGann announced his intent to walk away from the show at the end of the season, forcing Fox to weigh their alternatives. Cancellation was discussed, but the show was still proving profitable, and though the viewership had shrunk, the remaining fans were devoted to the show. Fox made a blockbuster move, courting George Clooney who had announced his own departure from ER. Clooney was looking to pursue his movie career, but couldn’t pass up the chance at such an iconic role. He agreed, but with a stipulation.

He would only do thirteen episodes.

Fox assented to the demand, largely in hopes that Clooney would change his mind once on set. He was set, however, and his rapid departure ushered in an instability of casting as Fox jumped from one actor to another, sometimes keeping a Doctor for as long as a half season, sometimes stunt casting an actor for a single two-parter. It was seen as a guest role, even though it was the star of the show, and focus moved away from the Doctor himself and towards the more stable companions. After two seasons of this, Fox saw the writing on the wall and announced the show would end after its fifth season. With The X-Files ending the same year, it was a blow to science fiction on Fox.

20th Century Fox held on to the rights to Doctor Who, however, denying the BBC an opportunity to reboot the show on no less than three occasions between 2001 and 2008. Finally, in 2010, they were in a position where they were forced to exercise or lose the rights. Not wanting to put the character back on television, they attempted a feature film. Believing that saddling the character with now 45 years of back story was asking too much of the audience, Doctor Who was to be rebooted with a fresh origin story.

There was initial promise. Wanting to return the Doctor to his roots as an older character, not to mention in hopes of casting the first British actor to play the role since McGann, Fox landed their dream actor, Patrick Stewart. He’d been central to not one, but two science fiction franchises, why not a third? Unfortunately while the casting was well received, the movie was panned by critics, largely for Damon Lindelof’s confounding back-and-forth time travel plot. The movie made a profit, but not enough of one to justify a sequel. However, Fox still puts out direct-to-DVD follow-ups every few months starring a British actor known mostly for the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series Sherlock in the main role, just to hold onto the rights. And they’ll probably keep doing so. They’re cheap enough to put together, and just enough people buy them.

If y0u believe in alternate universes, somewhere out there might be one where Fox passed on the show. Where the BBC started it back up. And where it was done right. However, the various attempts at Americanizing the show left it a shadow of its former self. I hope they know the bullet they dodged by the McGann version failing. It’s not that McGann was bad. He was great. He was my first Doctor, watching him on Sunday nights on Fox. But everything else around the idea was so bad, so cynical, so…not Doctor Who.

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RPGs and Story Telling: Dump Stats

In this space last week, I talked about using random character sheets to explore different approached to character creation. Let’s pull some of those character sheets back out and look at an important aspect. This doesn’t come up in every role playing game, but any system with more than four stats is going to make the player pick which skills they’re good in…

…and then pick their dump stat.

dumpstatThis is probably my favorite part of putting a new character together. In most systems, every character is great at something (though in Call of Cthulhu, you get to be merely competent in one or two skills). This will usually dictate what skills a character can pick up, and how they’ll find their way out of a situation. For a character good at swinging the epic Mordenkrad Hammer (Brutal 1), for example, every problem is going to look like a nail to smash.

But when actually role-playing a character, player decisions are often informed not only by what a character is good at, but by what they’re bad at.

RPGs force this issue. Writers are on their honor to remember it. When building characters for stories, I’ve had this problem. It’s easy to think about a character’s competencies, it’s less obvious to think about a character’s incompetencies. While a character being good at things might get them out of a problem, being bad at things will get them into problems. And that’s the heart of drama.


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Two Hugo Nomination Suggestions

As I’m writing this post, I’m anxiously waiting for my Hugo nomination PIN. So I haven’t filled out a nominating ballot in any official sense, but I have started thinking of some notions of what I’d like to support. I don’t suspect I’ll make much of a difference in the process, but at least I can do what I can to provide some categories with new nominees.

Dramatic Presentation: Short Form. Yes, yes, I know this is my bugaboo category. And, yes, I know it’s going to come down to Day of the Doctor vs The Rains of Castamere, which isn’t actually a bad pairing as Day of the Doctor was head and shoulder above any of the nominated Doctor Who episodes last year. However, I’m still firmly behind giving Welcome to Night Vale some support. Specifically, the two part episode The Sandstorm.

Dramatic Presentation: Long Form. There’s are two categories within Dramatic Presentation that I don’t believe have ever been nominated. One is video games, the other is theatrical presentations. Theater and the Hugos are an awkward combination, as most theatrical shows don’t reach a broad enough audience to make a blip in the Hugo process, but this year I’m going to include one on my ballot. Specifically Mike Daisey’s All The Faces of the Moon. Yes, it’s that Mike Daisey, infamous for forcing This American Life into issuing a rare retraction. The show was a massive monologue delivered over 28 consecutive days and released on podcast. It’s hard to tell where the extemporaneous portions end and the scripted (or, at least, planned) elements begin. The whole of the story takes a gradual veer into urban fantasy, and is a lot of fun.

I don’t expect either of these to end up on the final ballot. Perhaps that’s why I’m pointing them out now, just to demonstrate some support for things other than episodes from the big two television series and Hollywood releases in the dramatic presentation categories.


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Bee Update, Winter 2014

I’ve not talked about the bees in a while.

We went into the season with two fresh hives, package bees that took the trip up from Georgia. So, as one does, we named the queens Peachtree and Umbriel. This was an entirely unnecessary step as both hives staged coups and installed new queens during the early summer.

This was a less-bad year for bees in Northern Virginia. Still not a great year, but not the horrible year that we went through with our first attempt. Both hives made it through the summer and fall looking hale and hearty.

It’s been an odd winter around these parts. We had early snow, we had our share of the polar vortex taking temperatures down into the single digits, but we’ve also had some surprisingly warm stretches. During the first of these warm periods, we saw bees venturing forth from both hives to do some foraging. Unfortunately during the warmer weather this weekend, bees only came out of one hive.

So we’ve apparently lost a hive. However, that’s the pessimistic way of looking at things. Instead, we’re looking at the positive: our hives are half full. This is a major improvement over last year when we lost one hive to robbers during the early autumn, and the other hive was empty by this point in the winter.

There’s still a lot of winter ahead, but the bees have survived some of the worst of it already. This is fantastic news because year two of a hive is the earliest point for honey harvesting. It’s no guarantee that we’ll get some nice tasty honey even if the hive does make it, but we’re in so much better of a place now than we were last year. Crossing fingers.

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RPGs and Story Telling: Character Sheets

I’ll admit, I have a bit of a problem when it comes to the Bundle of Holding. For those who don’t follow it, you should. The site takes the notion of the Humble Bundle, pay-what-you-want pricing for a collection of games with proceeds going to charity, but instead of computer games the site goes for pen-and-paper RPGs. The most recent bundle is my eighth, and even though I don’t know when (or even if) I’ll get around to giving them all a try, I enjoy having them.

Fact is, I’ve always enjoyed owning RPGs, even if I don’t sit down and play the actual games nearly as often as my collection suggests. As a kid I would buy Toon books from Steve Jackson. I was a high school student playing Mage in the heyday of White Wolf. For awhile I collected some of the GURPS books. As an adult, I’m finally getting into Dungeons and Dragons (4E) and Call of Cthulhu.

BoH FilesPDF has given a new life to pen-and-paper RPGs, allowing for cheaper pricing and easier distribution. It’s fantastic, and it has resulted in the file directory at right. I was going to keep expanding folders, but they wouldn’t all fit on the screen at the same time. Maybe I do have a problem.

Anyway, I enjoy RPGs as much for the playing as for the opportunities they present the story teller. So this is part one of a new, short series about RPGs and story telling. It’s not about how better to play or run RPGs, because I can’t give that sort of advice. It’s also not about how to turn your RPG session into a short story. The answer to that is: don’t.

It’s about how I approach RPGs as a story teller.

The first place I turn in any new RPG (or scroll, as I tend to do PDFs) is to the end. First because I’m always curious how good of an index they have. Second because I want to see what the character sheets look like. These can range from complicated multi-page layouts like Dungeons and Dragons to simpler notions of asking what is your name, what is your quest, and what is your favorite color.

Each is a different way to approach how to create a character, tailored to the kind of story-telling that the game shoots for. You can get a very quick feel for the style of an RPG by looking at those blank sheets at the end.

Every now and then I like to approach characters in my stories and novels this way. Pull out a character sheet and look at the methods of creation. Whether it’s considering each of their skills at a micro level in Call of Cthulhu or considering the connections between characters required by Fate Core. These are things that I always try to think about with characters, but by pulling up an unfamiliar system, I’m forced to consider them from a different angle.

Which I find a powerful tool. Finding a different way to approach a characters sometimes ends up being an interesting thought experiment. Sometimes it results in me finding a plot line hidden in the characters that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Oh, I don’t do it every time. Only when I feel like I need to goose my creativity.

The best part about this method? You don’t need to become a Bundle of Holding junkie like me (though you should). RPG makers want you to play their games, which means most of them allow for wide distribution of the character sheets even if the rest of the book is protected under copyright. RPG Sheets is a massive online database of these sheets, including old editions of oft-updated systems, games you’ve never heard of, and games that perhaps should never have been made. They don’t necessarily include character creation instructions, but they’re a good starting point to get the brain going.


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Great Hugo Read: Year One Wrap-Up

Perhaps the biggest victim of the rarity of blog posts around here has been the Great Hugo Read. I’m still going through the books, and there is still a small community of readers occasionally having opinions over at the Goodreads Group. This month is a double dose of Heinlein as we look at his Hugo winning opus Stranger in a Strange Land, paired with the Retro Hugo winner Farmer in the Sky. But let’s talk about those later, especially since I’m only about 80 pages into the quite long Stranger. Instead, let’s catch up with 2013. Specifically the old winners. And since the end/beginning of the year is the time for lists, here’s my ranking of the seven past Hugo winners that came up in 2013:

7) They’d Rather Be Right. Look, I don’t know what I expected going into this book. I’ve seen it called the worst novel to ever win the Hugo, and came away with nothing that convinces me otherwise. The novel has a decent start. For a handful of chapters, I even wondered if the reputation was ill deserved. However, the second half of the book falls rapidly apart. It’s a book I can only recommend to Hugo completists.

6) Double Star. This was probably my biggest disappointment of 2013. No, it’s not as bad as They’d Rather Be Right, but it’s a book that I actually had expectations for, and just fell flat. You can say what you will about Heinlein’s various novels, there are some of his books that drive me absolutely batty (Farnham‘s Freehold anybody) some that I’ve loved (Job) but falling flat is not a problem I ever expected to have from one. But…there it is.

5) A Case of Conscience. Much like They’d Rather Be Right this is a novel of two halves. The first half is a rather interesting story that hangs out on another planet that is suitably alien in every way, while still being approachable. The second half takes the story back to earth, and just didn’t hold me quite the way the first half did. It was the first of two novels in 2013 that had Catholic undertones to the science fiction, and that isn’t where the fault lies (if you look ahead, you’ll see). The fault lies in the integration.

4) The Big Time. This goes right in the middle because it was the novel that stuck with me the least. I could only remember six of the seven books while putting this list together, and I even had to remind myself of the plot to The Big Time. It’s fascinating in that it’s a small story told in a big world. A closed door mystery where, on the other side of the door, is a massive war being fought back and forth through time. Some books stay with you for what they do right. Some for what they do wrong. And some, perhaps by no fault of their own, just come and go. This fell into that third category, and it feels fitting to use it to separate the two other categories.

3) Starship Troopers. I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. It might even be one of my top ten all time favorites, if you’d believe it. However, this was my first time reading the book. In part I haven’t bothered because I heard so many times that the novel and the movie are two very different things. That the movie is a satire of the novel. I knew the diehard fans of the book often don’t like the movie, so I assumed as a diehard fan of the movie I would dislike the book. I was wrong. It’s clearly the same story, but told in a very different ways. I see the bits that the movie decided to take out of context, to twist, to put into a different light. It was hard not to read the novel as a satire of itself, if that makes sense. To not take it at face value as I might otherwise. That I’ve put it at number 3 on the list says more about the novels ahead of it than the novels behind it.

2) The Demolished Man. I seriously thought about putting this as #1. For most of the year, I would have. About this time last year I started gushing about this book, because it simply blew me away. From word one, I was sucked in and was disappointed when it was over only because there was no more of it to read. I could go over my reasons, or simply point out that I wrote three posts on the book back in January 2013, and link to them here. (One Two Three) I will say, it was my biggest positive surprise of the year.

1) Canticle for Leibowitz. Alright, you looked ahead when I said my problem with Case of Conscience wasn’t the Catholic science fiction. Yes, that means I put the other right at the top of the list. Leibowitz creates not one, but three compelling futures, jumping centuries at a time between portions of the book. Each is eerily plausible, each flows from the previous. The third is, perhaps, the weakest, but the strengths of the first two sections carry so much gravitas into the ending. Perhaps it’s the futility that peppers the final third, combined with reading it so close to Christmas, turned me off the message of Book Three. I’ve made an attempt to not hold that against the book, which I apparently succeeded at, since I’ve put it at #1.

That’s my breakdown. If anyone read some or all of the books and has a different ranking, please let me know. I’m looking forward to another twelve months of science fiction classics I may not have otherwise read. Though there are some weighty reads coming up, with Stranger and Dune as primary reads, and the first two Song of Ice and Fire books as secondary reads.

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State of the Writer: January 2014

Welcome to the new year! At this time of year people tend to take stock of what they’ve done, and look ahead to what they would like to do. In 2013 I started a new productivity technique called The Chain. When last I updated, I had that chain up over 80 days. Unfortunately for that particular chain, that’s where it ended. The next day an ice storm brought down our neighbor’s tree, which had us decamped to the in-laws for a few days. Writing at someone else’s house just isn’t something I’m all too comfortable with, so for a few days nothing happened.

But! The Chain has, for the most part, been a massive success. The novel I started with the chain is now just under 60,000 words long with seven chapter left to draft. It has, in fact, been so successfully that I’m leveling up with the new year. Before, a successful day meant writing 500 words, or doing 30 minutes of either editing or outlining. Starting the second, I’ve increased each of those goals by 50%. 750 words, 45 minutes. Additionally, I’m working up a different schedule, at least for the time being. Tuesday through Friday means working on the novel. Weekends are for short stories.

What about Monday? Well, it’s no coincidence that I’m writing this on a Monday. Monday is for sitting down and actually writing some blog entries. At least one, though ideally two or three that I can schedule through the week.

Some other late breaking 2013 news, I landed a short story into an anthology. I’m waiting for the official table of contents to go live to say exactly which one, but I am excited to be in this anthology along with one of my best writing buddies NR Brown. It’s exciting to be sharing page space with another writer I know and respect. Plus, I totally beta read her story and it’s fantastic. That’s all I’m saying for now.

That’s actually the incentive behind designating some short story days. The first short story weekend just passed, and I got back into a story I walked away from awhile ago for reasons I can’t explain, because it’s a plotline I really liked.

So welcome to the New Year. And welcome to a hopefully revitalized Writerly Words.

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State of the Writer: December 2013

I was logged in to kill some spam comments, and I realized I hadn’t written a State of the Writer post yet for this month. Not only that, but I haven’t written a post at all since last month’s State of the Writer. So here goes.

I’ve brought up Don’t Break the Chain a few times on the blog, and more frequently on Twitter. It’s still turning out to be a hell of a tool, as I’m now sitting on an unbroken streak of eighty-five days. That’s eighty-five days of writing 500 words, editing for half an hour, or outlining for half an hour. I’ll hit an even one hundred before the end of the year, and if I do so, I’m thinking about upping the difficulty level to 750 words, or 45 minutes.

This has led to a manuscript of 47,000 words, likely on the way to an 80,000 word rough draft. Which is right on target. More importantly, over the last few nights I’ve really hit the voice of the book. This is a point I sometimes hit earlier, sometimes later. With Nickajack it was nearly immediate, but it’s been a slow process here. Which isn’t really a problem. As long as it comes at all. The trick is to then double back when I hit the end and fix up the beginning with the corrected voice.

It’s a novel I’m still excited about. It’s also the first novel that I’ve been completely in the dark about. Most of my writing I’ve bounced off a writers group while it’s in progress, but those of you who are members of the group know: I haven’t been showing up as much lately. It’s the price of having a baby, I suppose. It’s been a little uncomfortable, but not enough so to stop. It does mean that I’m going to need to go through several rounds of beta reading.

Not yet. I’ll say when.

State of the author’s beer: We’ve popped two bottles this weekend. The first is the year old Pi Stout. The boysenberry flavor, unfortunately, doesn’t shine through. Though the stout has a beautiful color, and I’m very happy with the quality. It’s a recipe that I plan to tweak. The other bottle was our apple beer. It’s still very hoppy, though has mellowed since our last try. We’re thinking it’ll be perfect this summer, perhaps cut with apple juice or cider as a shandy, or with a hard cider as part of a snake bite.

State of the author’s bees: Hopefully hibernating happily. It’s damned cold out there.

There’s a potential bad habit I could get into. Starting each post with an apology, ending each with a promise to post more. I’m going to fight that. Keep me honest.

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State of the Writer: November 2013

Mmm, turducken. Available at your local Harris Teeter.

Mmm, turducken. Available at your local Harris Teeter.

October is gone, and November is here. First, I like to start the month by wishing best luck to anyone intended to do Nanowrimo. It was originally my goal as well, but chose instead to start The Chain instead. Still, I’ve done Nanowrimo several times in the past and know it isn’t easy. It isn’t a sprint. It isn’t even a marathon. It’s a marathon of sprints. Hopefully everyone is making good use of the month starting right at the weekend. My best year on Nano was a year that November 1st was a Saturday. That turned into a 5000+ word day that created a barreling momentum.

Speaking of not breaking the chain, my chain is going strong. I just wrapped up day forty-nine, a nice seven by seven block of x’s on my calendar, each representing 500+ words writing or 30+ minutes of outlining or editing. With one exception, a night that I counted writing a reference letter I’d put off long enough. Thus far, better than six days out of every seven have been writing, and due to that the manuscript is up over 28,500 words with 30,000 getting ready to fall early this week. The deep parts of the outline are even starting to come together, and I figured out where each of the three plot lines intersects with the other two.

Yay writing!

Not sure what’s going to happen during the holidays, but it’s not like I’m putting a lot of time into each day. That’s part of the power. A little bit of work every day adds up to a lot of work. It’s the same lesson I learned back when I could do fifteen minute hunks of morning writing.

The Great Hugo Read plows on, and this month we get to…I’m not going to say it’s the book I’ve looked forward to the most. Perhaps it’s better to say it’s the book I’ve anticipated the most. If that makes sense as a distinction. I have watched Starship Troopers a half-dozen times. It’s probably one of my ten favorite movies. But I’ve been warned, I understand that the book is a Very Different Thing from the movie, that Paul Verhoeven was in equal parts adapting and satirizing the novel. I’ve paired it up with a recent novel that owes a lot to Starship Troopers: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

Standard details:

Primary: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1960)

  • Print: In print.
  • Electronic: Available for Nook and Kindle.
  • Audio: Available from Audible, narrated by Lloyd James.
  • Film: Oh lord. I love this movie. I understand it takes a LOT of liberties with the book, and can be seen as a satire of the book rather than an adaptation of it. I’ve seen it several times, which should make reading the book…interesting?

Secondary: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Military science fiction inspired, in part, by Starship Troopers)


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Well. Damn.

Back in April, I posted my grand idea for a Drink Transfer Protocol, a way for geographically remote people to owe each other a drink. It wasn’t a perfect idea, certainly, but it was a fun idea to think about. Apparently I shouldn’t have posted it on the blog, but instead to the patent office, because someone else thought it was a good idea, too.


Today they announced Tweet-a-Coffee. They’re a logical company for the idea. It immediately solved the two biggest problems I identified: needed a network of locations participating and deciding on a defined value for “a drink.” Starbucks is international, and the coffee being tweeted is actually a five dollar gift card.

There is a downside, it requires both the sender and recipient to give a lot of personal information to Starbucks for the purpose of completing the transaction. It’s simultaneously a way to move five dollar gift cards, which might not get used, and collect customer information. Delicious, delicious customer information, the currency of the new internet.

Still. Damn. Woulda been nice to get this to market somehow before a big conglomerate came up with the same idea.

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