I just finished watching Nina Conti‘s quite wonderful documentary about her life as a ventriloquist. I’ve long been in awe of the sheer talent and hours of practise ventriloquists have to put in to achieve their goal and for every Nina there must be a hundred whose attempts are not successful, but who still plug away, talking to a puppet. In essence, this documentary features Nina taking what she calls the ‘bereaved puppets’ of her mentor, Ken Campbell, on a pilgramage to Kentucky and the Vent Haven museum.
‘Bereaved puppets’. A wonderful phrase, and one that also brings to mind this incredibly sad picture, published by Warner Brothers in the wake of the death of the wonderful, wonderful Mel Blanc – an outstanding talent and one of my personal heroes.
There was something she said during the course of the programme (if you can access it on BBC iPlayer whilst it’s still here, do so – it really is a wonderful thing to watch) that resonated with me in my capacity as a writer.
In essence, Nina was talking about the ‘voices in her head’ and how the puppets bring out a dormant side of her personality. I think that’s true of me as a writer as well, except in my case the puppets are characters in my stories. Just as Nina spends a lot of time with her puppets trying to find their ‘voices’, I can’t write about a character if I can’t hear their voice. Sometimes, a quiescent character is louder than I anticipated and as a consequence, my attention goes in their direction.
Take Jeremiah, the scene-stealing swine. Dreamed up as nothing more than a passing character for The Gildar Rift, needed for nothing more than a scene to move the story on, the scratty little Navigator shouted far louder than I ever intended to. As a consequence, he caught the attention of my editor at the first draft stage. ‘More of him, please,’ was the request. So Jeremiah, smirking all the while, got to say more, do more, be more prominent than he was ever meant to be. The same is true for the character of Kormak in Valkia the Bloody. He was conceived with no purpose in mind other than to demonstrate just how far loyalty can be stretched… well, it’s not released yet, but you’ll see what happened there.
All my main characters have very distinctive ‘voices’. I also find that when I read other books, the characters take on tone and pitch; accents and inflections. If this doesn’t happen, then I consider myself completely unengaged with the protagonist. It may not completely ruin my enjoyment of a book, but it somehow becomes more… passive. I read the book in a neutral, clipped British accent; a narrator who pronounces every ‘h’, who sounds every ‘g’ and ‘t’ at the ends of his words. But when a character has a specific voice – and I don’t mean necessarily dialect (Gambit’s varying Cajun from X-Men, anybody?) – then they come alive. They step out of the page and talk to me.
Take Garviel Loken from the Horus Heresy series. In my head, he is a softly-spoken sort of character. At least, as softly-spoken as an Adeptus Astartes with bajillions of genetic modifications can be. I hear this constant note of query in his voice: as if he is questioning everything cautiously. Compare him to a character like Taryk Torgaddon, who blusters his way noisily around the Vengeful Spirit and it works perfectly. Belgarion, from David Edding’s Belgariad series whines his way around the world until he becomes a man. Then he’s much the same, only slightly deeper. Ce’nedra screeches, Polgara talks in very plummy English, Durnik is West Country to the hilt… do you see what I mean?
I think if you can’t find a character’s voice, it’s very hard to write for them. I have written a couple of Doctor Who stories since the new series kicked off (purely for my own entertainment) and whilst I found David Tennant’s Doctor Voice fairly easy to find and work with, I found it much harder to engage with Christopher Eccleston. It became a personal challenge and in the end, I think I managed it. I’m going to drop the story at the end of this post for those who might be interested. (Also, if you want to see any of the Ten stories, just let me know).
At the end of Nina’s documentary, she gives one of her puppets to the ‘Vent Haven’ museum and I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised at her choice. It had seemed to me that this was a puppet with whom she had engaged brilliantly. She also chooses to give another puppet to a young ventriloquist who impressed her. He must be about twelve or thirteen years old. “Do you want this puppet?” It’s a simple question and the sheer delight on the boy’s face is wonderful. “I would love it,” he exclaims and she hands it to him, explaining that she’s tried so hard, but she’s no good at it. She’s not talking about ventriloquism in that moment, because Nina Conti is an astonishingly competent and wonderfully talented woman. She’s talking about finding the puppet’s voice. And in the act of passing it to someone else, she mirrors the action of her own mentor.
If you can’t find a puppet’s – or a character’s – voice, the best thing to do is find another one.
SIX HONEST SERVING MEN
Disclaimer: The Doctor, the TARDIS and the other locations referred to in this story do not belong to me. (Apart from the little bit of the Earth that I happen to be standing on). The characters and majority of places belong to all those lucky, lucky people who get to own the Doctor Who copyright and write for it all the time. I don’t. I get to write for it when inspiration strikes and in a futile effort to empty my head out of these little unseen moments. This story is an entirely non-profit making venture and is in no way meant to impinge on copyright in any way, shape or form.
I never, ever thought that I could get myself into the ‘head’ of the ninth Doctor, so I was chuffed to bits when this story came to me earlier today out of nowhere. By way of explanation, the Rudyard Kipling quote at the beginning came from my Year Seven science teacher, who told us that by applying those six questions to any situation, you could find the solution.
The other poetry credit goes to the immortal Spike Milligan.
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
- Rudyard Kipling
His last, most overriding memory was of running. Running for his life. You can still make it out alive, he’d told himself. You must run!
And alone, he ran.
There had been excruciating, terrible pain, the kind of pain you only felt when you were dying. He knew the feeling. He’d died before.
Then had come the enveloping blackness, drawing him down into its soft, velvet relief.
Now, his eyes opened.
A glaring white light made him instantly regret that split-second decision and his instincts firmly encouraged him to reconsider and squeeze them tightly shut again. He obeyed his instincts and was rewarded with welcome relief from the brightness.
Memories assailed his semi-conscious senses instead – a multitude of thoughts, emotions and feelings that relentlessly battered at him as a storm batters at a helpless fishing boat lost out at sea. The memories of over nine hundred years of existence created a surprising quantity of what could only be described as ‘brain litter’. And right now, all that formerly carefully filed and neatly organised brain litter was in a state of utter, abject chaos. It was as though someone had quite literally entered his mind and thrown files stuffed with memories around with careless abandon. There was a veritable mountain of information in a huge pile in the middle of his recall, and it was presently threatening to collapse on him.
He sifted through the memories with great care and no small amount of trepidation, treating each one as gingerly and carefully as a man handling a crocodile with toothache.
Right. Get a grip. Begin from first principles. Who am I, and why am I here?
I think that might just be a bit too existential at this early point in the proceedings. OK, back it up to REAL basics and work forwards from there.
Who am I?
A quick rifle through assorted memories dislodged a name, but he dismissed it immediately, aware on some deeper, darker level of subconscious that this particular identity was something that he had long ago chosen to leave behind.
Dig a little deeper.
You’re the Doctor.
Not so much a name, he asserted, as a title. A title he had elected to adopt when he had turned his back on his home…
The memory slammed into him with an almost relentless, cruel viciousness. Unprepared for the suddenness of such violent recall, the man known as the Doctor gasped audibly.
His home – or at least the place of his birth – was gone. After millenia of conflict, the Daleks and the Time Lords had finally found themselves in a position that could only be described as ‘stalemate’.
The bitter-sweet irony was not lost on the Doctor, despite his unease and disorientation. Peace between the Time Lords and the Daleks had come at the ultimate cost. But now, at last, the Daleks had been stopped in their pepper-potted despotic activities once and for all. They were gone. As were, unfortunately, the Time Lords.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, he opened his eyes again. He’d dealt with the ‘who’ of the current situation. Now time to face the ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how’. But first, there was another, more pressing matter. Something that needed attention sooner rather than later.
“The what,” he said. “As in, what the hell is going on?” The Doctor spoke the words aloud and was startled immediately back into silence by the sound of his own voice. That was not the voice he remembered.
Another frantic rummage through his personal data banks turned up a familiar word.
“Again? Hello? Hello? Testing, testing, I’m the Doctor. Mary had a little lamb – what they…?”
Did he have an accent? That was a novelty. He flashed a brief grin, despite himself, and recited a poem, a child’s nonsense poem he’d picked up on Earth a long time ago.
“Said the tiny ant
To the elephant:
‘Mind how you tread in this clearing!’ Crikey, I sound completely different!” He paused, then resumed.
“But alas! Cruel fate!
She was crushed by the weight… Did I just pronounce that ‘crooshed’? I did!
Of an elephant, hard of hearing.”
Silence fell once more.
“Yep. Definitely an accent.”
Oddly, he was grateful for the distraction this discovery provided. It gave him enough of a reason to deny the aching truth of what had happened, to begin forming a hard shell around the profound sense of grief and loss that was pervading every sense, the feeling that threatened to overwhelm him in a tide of abject, utter misery.
A moment of meandering distraction.
Am I even the kind of man who does misery?
If I stay on board this particular train of thought, the answer to that question is somewhere between ‘yes’ and ‘definitely’. All aboard the 5.15 express train to Complete Insanityville! Tickets, please!
Time, I think, to disembark.
The Doctor got himself back, metaphorically speaking at least, on track.
So. To recap. I am the Doctor. I am a Time Lord. I have just escaped the Time War and, I suspect, not entirely unrelated to that, I have just regenerated for the eighth time – which, all things taken into consideration and being equal and opposite and all that sort of stuff, is either very, very fortunate, or decidedly clumsy of me. I have clearly just regained consciousness after an unspecified period of time. I am, therefore, the ninth incarnation of myself. Hello, me, meet me. Fantastic. That definitely takes care of the ‘who’ and, to a lesser, but no less critical degree, the ‘what’ as well.
Now for the ‘where’.
He got himself up into a sitting position and blinked in the light that had permeated his post-regenerative haze. Looking around, he felt a sense of undeniable familiarity, of fondness – of simple belonging. A tired, but genuine smile lit his face.
“Hello, old girl.”
He was inside his beloved TARDIS. Just how he’d ended up here was almost secondary to the fact that the pair of them were no longer just renegades from Gallifrey.
They were now all that was left.
As if in response to his voice, the garish, bright white light softened to something entirely more friendly and welcoming. The TARDIS suffused with a soft, greenish tinge and through its eternal heartbeat, he felt a gentle thrum of delight at his conscious presence. He put his hands on the console and pulled himself upright. The sudden change in altitude made him a little dizzy and he gripped at the console. The constant throb of the console, which he could now feel beneath his hands, changed pitch to something almost querying.
“I’m fine,” he reassured, patting the console absently. “I’m fine. I’m…quite tall. That’s good. I like tall.” He glanced down. Yes. Definitely taller – and broader – than his previous self, anyway. At least judging from the fact that he seemed to be a good five inches taller than his trousers promised, and the fact that he seemed to be in possession of an interesting ‘gape’ effect in the shirt department.
“Add that onto the ‘who’ list,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “I’ll sort some clothing out later. Let’s deal with the ‘where’, shall we? Present company excepted, where am I?” He patted the console again and the querying tone to the TARDIS’s gentle background hum dissolved into soothing vibrations. The Doctor tapped at the video screen and examined the graceful, elegant curves of Gallifreyan script that shifted and changed under his hands. His eyes widened, his hearts pounded and the earlier nausea gave way to a sense of something entirely different.
“These galactic coordinates,” he said the TARDIS. “You brought me here all by yourself?”
A faint flare in the green tinge that the Doctor understood to be an affirmation of his question. “Primary Emergency Protocol Theta Sigma,” he said, and his voice was thick with emotion. “You couldn’t take me home, because home has…well, home has gone. So you took me to the only other place I could ever call home. You’re a clever old thing, aren’t you?”
A pink tinge to the glow made the Doctor smile with great affection.
That wonderful, infuriating, unbelievably backward little planet known in some circles as Sol 3. The place that had given him sanctuary when the universe itself would no longer accept him. The place that he’d necessarily called ‘home’ for so long, so many years ago now.
The place that had provided him with some of the most stimulating – and frustrating – companionship he’d ever known. The place that had given him a taste for beer and ready salted potato crisps. The place that no matter how hard he tried to leave behind always drew him back into its fond embrace. The planets old mythology often called her ‘Mother Earth’, and the analogy was fitting. There was something oddly nurturing about the place. Just think of them. Mankind. Running about on the surface of the little blue planet like a billion, billion little ants. So much life teeming away down there.
Again, that rushing sensation of terrible, dreadful loneliness. He was the last of his kind.
So much death.
The last of the Time Lords.
He could not, at this time, reconcile the enormity of those six words with the churning emotions that he was still refusing to acknowledge, so he pushed it firmly to the back of his mind. Perhaps, he thought, with great unreasonableness, if I don’t think about it, it isn’t happening.
“We have the ‘who’,” he said, firmly tapping at the console with a long finger. “And the ‘what’. Well, sort of the ‘what’. And now we have the ‘where’. So the ‘when’ is easy enough…yes, there we go.”
Three keystrokes gave him the answer to that question and also specified the ‘where’ for him a little more: Earth. Early twenty first century – 2004 to be precise. Not fully materialised yet, but with a programmed final destination point of somewhere in London. The TARDIS, demonstrating yet again that wonderful level of sentience that he’d come to love over the years, had cautiously remained within the time vortex, choosing to maintain her position, waiting to monitor and see what had happened, rather than throw herself with great gusto into the middle of a heaving city centre.
The Doctor grinned and reached up to run a hand through his hair – which he discovered was rather more close-cut than he’d ever had before. He liked London. It had that sort of raging sense of organised chaos that was so very indicative of the human psyche. He leaned back a little from the console and exhaled a breath that he’d not even realised until that moment that he was holding.
“Four down,” he said. “Two to go. ‘How’ and ‘why’.” He stared up at the ceiling of the TARDIS, impossibly far away above him and shook his head. “I’m not entirely sure,” he admitted, “that I can deal with either of those just yet. Let’s leave those out of the equation, shall we? Especially the ‘why’.”
A flash of visions passed behind his eyelids again, causing him to swallow back a lump of raw emotion that threatened to choke him. The Time War, he thought, feeling a swelling surge of rage that burst forth from him in a moment of pure anger, culminating in him turning and slamming his fist into the wall of the TARDIS, which emitted a faint grind of indignant disapproval. I failed them all. And this is my punishment.
“Well, no more,” he muttered. “No more getting attached. From now on, I operate alone. Let’s see what’s going on down there, shall we? There’s always something happening on Earth.” He flicked a few switches, pressed a few buttons, twirled a few random knobs and pulled a lever or two for good measure. It was like conducting an orchestra and the old, familiar movements brought him a modicum of comfort.
It turned out that his generalisation about the activity that so often surrounded Earth was not wrong on this occasion, and the readings that the TARDIS duly presented to him were almost pleasurable in a faintly macabre way. An excuse to go down to the planet, to mingle with humans again. They were so primitive and yet at times, there were these amazing flashes of inspiration, these incredible displays of raw courage and genius that endeared them as a race to the Doctor’s hearts. It was why he had acquired so many companions over the years from the planet…
A flare of hope.
Had he not known better, he’d have sworn that the prompt came from the TARDIS herself.
“No,” he said, firmly. “No. Just…no. Let’s go check this out. But first, clothing.”
In the past, he had always let his instincts guide him around the wardrobe room of the TARDIS, finding the outfit that best suited his personality and mood at the time of regeneration. When he emerged, after barely fifteen minutes, he was clad in black. Dark trousers, dark shirt and a black leather jacket that had definitely seen better days. He liked it. It felt right. It was, quintessentially, him.
He didn’t bother with the mirror. He didn’t want to know just yet. The memory of who he had been was still too raw. He couldn’t prod at that wound just yet. It would wait. It was good enough for now that he was alive.
Thus clad, the Doctor studied the interesting, faintly anomalous readings and set coordinates for the source.
“Let’s go save the world,” he said.
An hour later, he was on terra firma and there was a part of him that wished he’d just stayed unconscious in the time vortex. Department stores were, to his clinically ordered (and now generally re-filed) mind, almost entirely congruous with the human race. The Doctor had visited any number of planets during his extended lifetime and there had always been shops. Trade, even on the most primitive of planets, was a must, a way of life. But nowhere else in the universe had he come across a shop where you could buy cookware on one floor, and mere steps away from the latest in ceramic potware, you could select from a vast array of socks and underpants.
It was almost endearingly eccentric. Almost as amusing as twenty-four hour supermarkets. Only geniuses, idiots and drunks wanted to buy washing up liquid at four in the morning.
He felt a rush of warmth for the human race, bless them.
The signal was strong in here, no doubt about it. The sonic screwdriver had practically screamed with excitement when he’d activated it. Perfunctorily, he performed a low-level scan of the building and sucked air in over his teeth in irritation. There were, besides himself, two other life signs registering in the building, both in the basement, which was just out-and-out annoying. Why didn’t human beings just go home when they should? He tempered the moment of grouchiness by considering that a department store this size was more likely than not going to have some sort of security guard in place.
Probably two, if the readings were right.
For no readily apparent reason, it annoyed him that there were still humans in the building. Trust humans to get in the way.
Without them there, the plan was devastatingly simple. Find the signal, interrupt the signal, destroy the signal. A. B. C. As simple as it got. Of course, there was a distinct possibility that he might just destroy himself along with the signal, but what the heck. He was feeling reckless. Reckless and stupid.
It felt fantastic.
However, he felt a faint sense of responsibility nag at him and grudgingly accepted that he needed to get them out. It would be a simple enough thing to location them: it would be entirely another thing to encourage them to leave. In his experience, humans never just left. They spent far too long saying ‘why’, or ‘who are you’ or ‘what do you mean the building’s going to explode’ to just do what they were told.
It was with some surprise, therefore, when one of the two life signs winked out. Either they had just left the building by some hitherto unknown access point in the basement, or whatever was here threatening Hendricks’ Department Store, Purveyors of Inordinate Amounts of Pointless Junk was far more sinister than on first inspection. He concentrated his efforts with renewed vigour on finding the other occupant of the building.
When he did, it would set in motion a chain of events that would change his life forever.
She couldn’t have been a great deal older then eighteen, twenty at the most, and afterwards, for a very long time afterwards, he wondered just what it had been that had made him reach for her hand in the way he had. He had grinned at her terrified, bemused face and watched as she tore her attention away from the encroaching menace and instead stared directly into the eyes of the Oncoming Storm.
He wasn’t sure in that moment which was the greater threat to her. In the months to come, he was never fully sure. But that was in the time to come. This was the here, this was the now.
This was life.
“Run,” he said.
And together, they ran.