Friday, November 18, 2011

Re: Re: The First Wave



[Whopping great spoilers for my recently released Doctor Who story, The First Wave, follow.]

[End of spoiler warning.]

Hello Rose

First I should thank you. Your post is full of nice things about my writing generally. You call me “educated and intelligent”, which is not something I hear a lot. So thanks for those bits.

You clearly don't like The First Wave, and I don't intend to try to persuade you otherwise. But you make a number of claims that I don't think are fair. So I'll address those.

You make a lot of comments about Big Finish generally. I don't speak for Big Finish – what follows are my own opinions – and I'm not going to guess what producers or writers were thinking or trying to do. But there are openly gay and bisexual characters in several Big Finish Doctor Who stories, as well as in related ranges such as Bernice Summerfield and Graceless.

My own experience is that it's tricky writing an openly gay character in a Doctor Who audio story. There's already a lot to set up in a Doctor Who audio: a new location in time and space, created entirely from what characters tell us about it; a plot that hasn't been done before in all the hundreds of TV episodes, books, comics and other audios; an exciting monster and lots of jeopardy. Into that must go the Doctor and TV companion – and under the terms of Big Finish's licence with the BBC, they must be as they appeared on TV.

That doesn't leave a great deal of room for anyone else, so other characters tend to be sketched in lightly – character types that the listener can quickly visualise. I'd argue that we're rarely told the sexuality of any of the characters, heterosexual or otherwise.

Oliver Harper gets more depth than most because I created him as a new companion who'd appear in three stories. But his life and background are still quickly and lightly established. And that means it's tricky to avoid tokenism and cliché, to make him a character rather than a label or manifesto. You kindly praise my efforts in Oliver's previous two stories. Thank you.

But you don't like The First Wave specifically because I “stereotypically, pointlessly, offensively” killed off Oliver, who is gay. I'm sorry for causing any offence. You direct me to the TV tropes page on the “bury your gays” cliché. It's a good, fun piece that makes important points. But look again at what that page says:
“Please note that sometimes gay characters die in fiction because in fiction sometimes people die (this is particularly true of soldiers at war, where Sitch Sexuality and Anyone Can Die are both common tropes); this isn't an if-then correlation, and it's not always meant to "teach us something" or indicative of some prejudice on the part of the creator - particularly if it was written after 1960. The problem isn't when gay characters are killed off: the problem is when gay characters are killed off far more often than straight characters, or when they're killed off because they are gay. This trope therefore won't apply to a series where anyone can die (and does).”
“Anyone can die (and does)” is a good summary of the era of Doctor Who in which The First Wave is set. By “era”, I mean Season Three – not, as you argue, the First Doctor's adventures as a whole. In that season, Katarina and Sara die, Anne Chaplet (a sort-of companion in The Massacre) is apparently killed, Vicki is written out during a bloody battle that leaves Steven badly wounded, and Dodo vanishes off-screen having had her brain scrambled.

Actor Peter Purves discusses how abruptly the cast were let go in this period on DVD documentaries on The Ark and The Gunfighters – both of which I worked on. The production team even tried to write out William Hartnell as the Doctor in The Celestial Toymaker, before doing so a few months later in The Tenth Planet. There's a sense in this season that no one is safe and no one gets a happy ending. Steven's own exit from the series in The Savages could have been happy – he goes off to be a king – but that's not how it's played. So what happens to Oliver is perfectly in keeping with the series at the time (something the terms of our licence with the BBC requires).

What's more, a new companion gives us a lot of freedom. Not only can I make him a stockbroker and gay, but I also don't have to return him safely at the end of a story to where he was at the start. That's something we have to do with the TV characters under the terms of our licence. So part of the appeal of creating a new companion is that the listener doesn't know how things will end – or if he will survive.

That's the central point of the three plays featuring Oliver: anyone can die, and the longer they stay with the Doctor, the more they're on borrowed time. The phrase “borrowed time” appears in all the stories, and The First Wave would have been called Borrowed Time had there not already been an Eleventh Doctor novel called that. From that starting point, I tried to write an adventure that was exciting and also moving. You're meant to like Oliver, and not like him dying.

You object to Oliver's “noble self-sacrificing death to save the main [i.e., heterosexual] characters”*. I don't think you're arguing that he should have died ignobly – perhaps screaming for mercy or siding with the villains. And I don't think you're arguing that I've killed him off because he's gay. I think you're arguing that because he's gay I should treat him differently from any other character. You want me to discriminate.

You praise my previous story, The Cold Equations, because Oliver's “sexuality wasn’t constantly brought up, it was just a fact about him.” But I'd argue that you've made his death – and the scene where he helps Steven dress up in The Perpetual Bond – all about his being gay.

I don't expect any of this to change your mind. But remember that I brought Sara Kingdom back from the dead. The return of Oliver Harper would be a cinch.

All the best,


(* I could also point out, pedantically, that the show offers little evidence that the Doctor or Steven are specially heterosexual. But anyway.)


jacqueline_blog said...

Balanced & thoughtful response, IMO.

0tralala said...

Thank you. Have just lost an hour to your blog. Wow.

Anonymous said...

I used to want to write for Big Finish, but now I don't think I can.

I had a much longer comment, but I can't with this right now and you seem a lot more interested in protecting your own ego than listening. I'm too tired to deal with people who don't want to hear me. I actually, uh, kind of spent hours typing that response yesterday, then I just had to go for a walk and feel sad. I came home, looked at my half-finished rant, and didn't have the wherewithal to continue.

You don't get it. Your post was offensive. You don't seem to want to get it.

I'm going to go write something really gay and try to feel better.

platoapproved said...

I want to preface this by saying that I considered not responding to your response, A) because I don’t want this to seem overly antagonistic or argumentative and B) I know very well that you and I have better things to do with our time. But at the same time, it feels disingenuous not to say one or two very brief things.

Actually (and I realize in hindsight that this fact was omitted in what was, quite obviously I’m sure, an impulsive and polemical review), the kicker is, I loved “The First Wave”. I thought it was gorgeously acted, I loved the dynamic between Steven and Oliver, and the non-linear structure was delightful. My qualms are not with the story itself, necessarily.

You said:

“But there are openly gay and bisexual characters in several Big Finish Doctor Who stories, as well as in related ranges such as Bernice Summerfield and Graceless.”

Are there? I’ll admit right away that I’ve not yet had the time or money to delve into any of the Benny audios, and I’m clearly due for a re-listen of Graceless. I would like to think that I would have remembered any other minor characters, appearing in just one story, who were openly gay or bi. I actively pay attention for GLBT representation in media. But my memory is faulty just like anyone else’s. Can you point me to specific examples?

Setting that aside for the present, let’s look at repeating characters. I understand that the contract with the BBC calls for certain restrictions, particularly in terms of canon and established characters from the television series. That is out of your hands, out of Big Finish’s hands, and reasonable enough. I’m speaking in terms of repeating, Big Finish original characters (and excluding villains, so I suppose I’m really only speaking of companions). Their sexualities are often (if not always) told:

• Evelyn marries Rossiter.
• Charley’s romantic love for the Eighth Doctor is a constant plot point throughout her long run.
• Erimem is an interesting example. I enjoyed (what I perceived as) her subtextually homoerotic friendship with Peri, until she left the TARDIS by accepting a marriage proposal from Pelleas.
• C’rizz was married to L’da.
• Hex, aside from a girlfriend in A Death in the Family, is implied to be infatuated with Ace.
• DI Menzies is, unless I recall incorrectly, an exception in that we aren’t provided any information about her personal life. I could be wrong.
• It has been an awfully long time since I heard the Key 2 Time trilogy and Graceless, but I don’t recall Amy/Abby or Zara being coded as anything but heterosexual, but I’d need to verify that.
• Mary Shelley (does she count as a Big Finish original? But that’s another question entirely) is in a relationship with Percy Shelley.
• Mila is another interesting example who isn’t coded one way or another, as far as I recall.
• Klein was in a relationship with a man whose name escapes me.
• Flip was introduced along with her boyfriend.
• Brewster has a relationship with a woman named Connie.
• Lucie states her attraction to men (the Ewan MacGregor look-alike in “Scapegoat”). I don’t quite remember any specific instances for Tamsin or Alex and do not at present have time to check the audios that feature them. But, knowing myself, and the fact that I am hyper-aware of these things, I would have noticed any indication of queerness.

(continued in next comment)

platoapproved said...

(continued from previous comment)

Even when it comes to characters with no explicitly specified sexuality, a friend and I were discussing this last night, and she put it more eloquently than I could, so I’m going to include an excerpt from her email:

"See, when you don't divulge a detail about a character, they end up being whatever the default is. An ungendered narrator of a book will inevitably be referred to as "he." (With a few heretics who suggest, "He could be a woman!" but are met with, "He would have said," or "Why do you always have to make everything about feminism?) A stick figure is always a man. If you want to make a stick-woman, you have to put some hair or a dress or a bow on her or something, despite the fact that a man could have any of those things and a woman could easily lack all of them. When you don't state a character's race in a book (and even sometimes if you do, but at least then people get to make a stink over it) they'll be white in the movie. In fact, they won't just be white in the movie, they'll be white in the minds of all their readers, including the readers who are people of color. I remember reading a discussion where authors claimed that they liked to leave race ambiguous, so that people could imagine them any color they wanted, but people of color answered that even they will assume a character is white unless stated otherwise.

Besides, it's awful to have to imagine all your representation into the blanks. It's even more awful when the rug is yanked out from under you, and after years of ambiguity, someone finally just goes and makes the character the default anyway. And as long as the character is ambiguous,
people can do that.”

She also desired me to add, in response to your claim that it is difficult to find the time in an audio drama to code characters as non-heterosexual:

“I really think you are overstating the difficulty. Russell T. Davies had an aside in nearly every episode of his run establishing someone as gay with as little as a throwaway line. (Even in Mr. Moffat's era, there's a few lines like that, and good on him for continuing it.) If that's all you feel there's room for, what with all the adventuring and stuff, that's fine. We know this is Doctor Who, not Queer as Folk. And if it's a throwaway, then why does it matter? Because it's about representation. It's about feeling that the universe of Doctor Who is one we could exist in. You may have heard arguments like that about women or people of color in the media, too. Since we're people that, you know, exist, it's nice to also exist sometimes in our entertainment, instead of being rendered invisible.”

I realize in retrospect that my complaint is largely with an overall lack of representation in Big Finish stories, rather than your specific decision to kill off Oliver in a trilogy that was, as you said, situated in a series where companion deaths and troubling departures were common. A trilogy which was about how tenuous life is as a companion.

I would love to have the luxury of considering Oliver in those terms: merely as a companion, whose sexuality isn’t necessarily relevant to his actions or death. But I don’t believe that is possible for me while he remains the only openly non-heterosexual companion in the Big Finish Doctor Who audios.

In any case, I wanted to thank you very much for generously reading my review, despite its length and negativity, and for taking the time to compose a reply. I don’t believe many authors would have been considerate enough to do so. I am, despite all this, quite looking forward to “The Anachronauts”, and perhaps in due course my naïve optimism that Big Finish will find a way to diversify its cast will return. There’s always room for hope.


0tralala said...

Aiffe: I'm sorry for any offence caused. I tried to answer Rose's comments openly and honestly.

Rose: thanks for the reply. As I said, I can't speak for Big Finish or anyone else - only for myself. A lot of the things you raise I wasn't involved in.

You're right: the majority of companions have been heterosexual – or we've not been told their sexuality. That's also true of the TV show, which Big Finish takes its lead from. But that doesn't make it right.

Your friend makes a number of good points, though I'd argue that Russell T Davies makes writing good, rich Doctor Who adventures look easy. His ability to conjure a character's whole life and worldview in a single line of dialogue is just one of the things I envy him for. I'm simply not as good a writer. But I'll endeavour to bear what you said in mind in future.

You asked about other openly gay and bisexual characters in Big Finish. Off the top of my head, there's Jason Kane (admittedly created in books), Doggles, Kreaqpolt, Tom in the Iris series. I'd particularly recommend the Benny play "Beyond the Sun" - one of the first things BF ever did.

All the best,