Casual Fridays: The Monty Python Yes

Hello, and welcome to the first Casual Friday, my new regular blog feature in which we try and keep the spirit of the 12 Blogs of Christmas alive throughout the year, with guests, chat, music and contests.  And, hopefully, the occasional bit of writing advice.

This week I've script edited Jac Rayner's new audio version of Love and War (which basically amounted to removing a few typos, it being amazing stuff), done half a draft of Demon Knights #7 (#8, the next between arcs issue, is nearly finished too), written some of the new Hamilton story and done some serious plotting on the sequel to Cops and Monsters, as well as starting to talk about publicity for said book with the good people at Tor.  I also went out yesterday, first for lunch with the ever-hearty Terrance Dicks, and then to the launch of Adam Christopher's Empire State at Forbidden Planet.  (I was able to surprise Who fan Adam with Terrance's good wishes.)  There was also a fabulous afterparty, with Lee Harris, Lavie Tidhar, Tony Lee, Emma Morgan and Danie Ware amongst the many having a jolly time.

During the 12 Blogs, I mentioned how I was looking forward to the season finale of Merlin, but how I found the way the series airbrushed all organised religion out of its worldview tiresome, and wondered how it would tackle Arthur and Gwen's wedding.  Well, the writer in question, Julian Jones, performed the show's usual feat of neatly sidestepping any awkwardness in favour of narrative clarity, and basically had Arthur marry them himself by just making Gwen his Queen.  It's rather awful seeing such fine skills displayed in the cause of stopping a priest appearing on BBC1 by all means necessary.  But still, I await next season with anticipation.  Some people have asked me if I similarly have problems with the utterly religion-free angels in the new lawyer show Eternal Law, but I actually find that approach more palatable.  If I was writing a series about scuba divers, I'd go out of my way to tell people that it wasn't especially for divers, that you didn't need to know anything about scuba, that it was for everybody.  What I wouldn't do is write a series where divers plunge into the depths without breathing equipment and never talk about how they did that.  (Hmm, if you see what I mean. I'm saving all my good metaphors for the books.)

I'm still so in awe of Steven Moffat's first new Sherlock episode that it's actually hard to talk critically about it.  I think in the last year he's been advancing British TV scriptwriting into completely new territory.  It's exciting like Aaron Sorkin is exciting.  It's exciting like jazz.  Moffat's playing, to continue that metaphor, is so extraordinary, and so extreme, that, despite the fact that clearly and obviously the script's only purpose is to tell a story, what this ninety minutes of television is about and even what happens in the plot is actually secondary to that playing.  I can just about see how he's doing it, but I know it's at a level I could never match.  The series of 'irrelevant' cases at the start, all but one of which turn out to be meaningful (and surely that other one is a set up for a later episode), have their significance concealed by also being two other things at the same time: a set up for Holmes' growing blog fame and a run of parodies of Holmes story titles.  The revelation of their significance is the climax of a magic trick, the writer doing exactly what the detective does when he reveals who did it.  Everything in Holmes' world has relevance.  To the character, it must be like living in a TV drama.  The genius of this episode was that it set up once again that completely rational world, then rocked it by having Irene Adler come at Holmes from an emotional angle, her nakedness being an absence of cues as well as clues, leaving him suddenly in the wrong genre.  When we hear she's died, we're tricked into believing it because Mycroft has already lied about it, and her death is the big reveal, and we decide that, since we're in a show that can hop between levels of seriousness at the same speed as Holmes chops through reality and swaps emotional states, that's the sort of show we're in now.  Except, reveal reveal reveal, hey presto, we're in a much more over the top and romantic show than that.  What did you expect?  Did you forget you were watching Sherlock Holmes?  Just because the playing rocketed us along through a case that wasn't a mystery, and formed one out of what looked like side issues.  The magician, like the dominatrix, asks us to surrender control, and in return we demand of them mastery of their work.  And we got it.  I have no idea where he can go next.  As I said, I am in awe.

I mentioned this in passing the other day, but I think it stands repeating: if you're going to nominate in the Eagle Awards, why not opt for Frank Hampson in the Hall of Fame section?  The creator of Dan Dare, possibly the greatest British comic book artist of all time, should surely be honoured by an award that bears the name of the comic for which he did his most famous work.

I've also decided to use these Fridays to share some of my favourite music, starting with this piece from Woodstock.  I like a lot of CSN.  The combination of romanticism, odd real world emotional shocks and close harmonies suits me down to the ground.  Something that calls itself a Suite should earn that, with different movements, and this does, but simply.

And now we come to our guest.  The author of a forthcoming book entitled The Doctor's Monsters: Meanings of the Monstrous in Doctor Who...

Paul’s very kindly offered me some space to talk about my forthcoming book on Doctor Who. I guess I should introduce myself first: my name’s Graham Sleight, and I’ve been writing about SF and fantasy for a decade or so now. Mostly, I concentrate on written sff – for instance, I review for Locus, and write introductions for some of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks. But I’ve also been a Doctor Who fan from way back when, and Paul outed me a few years ago

I can’t remember when I had my first contact with the series, but I think it was through a very battered jumble-sale copy of Terrance Dicks’s novelisation of 'Planet of Evil', at around age six. 

I can’t say that I understood it fully. (I still don’t. What’s beyond the mysterious pool? Why does it release Sorenson at the end?) But something stuck with me about that story of a monster in a jungle at the end of the universe. I started following the series on TV from, I think, 'The Ribos Operation' in 1978. When the show vanished from the screens in 1989, I went on to other things – like, as I say, writing about SF and fantasy books.

Anyway, I suppose that train of thought led me, a few years ago, to saying Yes to a suggestion from Philippa Brewster, an editor at I.B.Tauris. Tauris have an extensive line of rigorous-but-accessible books about SF and fantasy tv, including Matt Hills’s Triumph of a Timelord and several by my friend Roz Kaveney. Philippa’s suggestion was a book about the monsters in Doctor Who, and I grabbed the idea with alacrity. This was a question that had always fascinated me: what are monsters for in stories? I mean, they’re there to menace the protagonists, of course, but what else? I found myself coming to the conclusion that monsters are very often presented as standing for something – some human trait taken too far, for instance. As an example, the Sontarans have humanity’s desire for war to the exclusion of all else. The Cybermen are an embodiment of the desire people often have to get rid of flawed bodies that get colds or break their legs, and replace them with something that can’t fail. Once in a while, you get monsters that are based on something else, like an animal’s characteristics – the Wirrn, say, or the Zarbi or the Macra. Perhaps the most interesting are Malcolm Hulke’s Silurians and Sea Devils, which in a sense are just humans that happen to look different from us. 

The book consists of over 30 chapters covering most major Doctor Who monsters, from the Daleks to the Silents, from this point of view. I describe how they’re depicted and, in the case of long-running monsters, how that depiction has changed over time. The tone of the book, I hope, isn’t too academic. I’ve tried to write something that’ll be interesting to adult fans of the show, but also accessible to, say, a smart twelve-year-old. 

The writing took a little longer than anticipated, partly because of an unexpected stay in hospital. But Philippa’s been very patient, and the book is now in the hands of the production team at I B Tauris. It’s due for publication in October, and you can pre-order it from Amazon here. If you’re interested, I’ll be updating the book’s page on my website with cover images and more news over the next few months.

Thanks, Graham.  Now, I promised some writing advice, continuing from my 40 Things About Writing blog last year.  I said at the time that that was all I had to say on the subject, but I keep thinking of more points. Whenever I do, I'll share them with you on a Friday.  So, we start with:

41: The Monty Python Yes.  The Pythons, and indeed anyone else satirising advertising in the 1970s, had jaunty announcers saying things like 'yes, new Whizzo, the soap powder for sea serpents' (I'm making this example up.  Oh, you noticed.)  I get the feeling this was already the selling style of a previous decade when they did it, but at least it was fairly current then.  But I still hear it (a little) in radio comedy now.  Probably because it's just one syllable.  But it's a syllable that says the writer isn't looking at how things are in the world, but at previous fictional depictions of it, ones that are now out of date.  It's a bit like how Doctor Who fan fiction during the old series was full of 1960s stock British characters who said things like 'stands to reason'.  Attempts to modernise that approach felt shocking to an audience that had got comfy with a portrayal of a world that no longer existed (if it ever had).  That comfy place isn't where a writer should be, which is one of the reasons why moving from fan fiction to a professional approach can (and should) feel like having a bucket of water thrown over you.  You have to make sure you're depicting the world as it is.

Here endeth the lesson.  Hmm, I'm not sure.  It feels odd to lecture people out of the blue like that.  You decide whether or not it works, and let me know, eh?

And finally, Esther, we come to our contest.  (While so far no points have been scored in our ongoing This Time Next Year game.)  The prize is a copy of issue two of Vworp Vworp, the extraordinary fanzine about Doctor Who Magazine, along with some stunning extras like a new Weetabix-style Doctor Who board game.  And that will go to the first person who posts in the Comments section correctly answering this (easy) question: in which televised Doctor Who serial are the silent gas dirigibles of the Hoothi mentioned?

(Don't add your address, I'll get the winner to email me with their contact details.)

And that's it for our first Casual Friday.  Cheerio!

16 Response to "Casual Fridays: The Monty Python Yes"

  • Piers Says:

    That'll be The Brain of Morbius, then!

    [wonders if he's first]

  • Piers Says:

    [is first!]
    [does the happy dance]

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Yes! You win!

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Drop me a line at and tell me your postal address. Well done!

  • Cavan Scott Says:

    I wore my white tie - did you?

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    And I hope that's in a Scottish accent. (Nobody else knows what we're talking about.)

  • Nick Smale Says:

    I'm not sure that 'Merlin' is deliberately avoiding the issue of religion. I think it's just that the show, despite having a dark age setting, chooses to present its characters as having contemporary knowledge and attitudes.

    Gaius is the most obvious example of this: a dark age doctor whose knowledge of medicine somehow includes the circulation of blood and the germ theory of disease; a man who, centuries before Copernicus, owns a model solar system that shows the planets orbiting the sun.

    We also see it in Arthur's attitudes to marriage. A real dark age king wouldn't reject a politically valuable marriage in order to wed a servant girl - he would think nothing of marrying the princess and keeping the servant as a mistress.

    'Merlin' could show its characters as having dark age religious beliefs, but as with marriage and medicine it chooses instead to give them contemporary attitudes - and in terms of religion, the contemporary default is secular.

  • Jason Arnopp Says:

    I like Casual Fridays. Bravo!

    I also like this new issue of Vworp Vworp! Those Weetabix games feel almost as deeply entrenched in my childhood as the Target novels.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Nick: that's just saying what I'm saying in a different way. There are loads of decisions, both conscious and unconscious on the way to that, including the very debatable assumption that we're living in a secular age: not outside Britain, or perhaps London, or perhaps just part of London. *Why* is that 'contemporary default' there? And why is that okay, when it results in my people being written out of fiction and fact? Jason: that Weetabix game is full on Proustian for me.

  • Matt Says:

    Hi Paul

    This issue, of Theophobia -- is that the correct term? I'm sure it's the one I've heard you use -- fascinates me. Do you know if anyone else is writing about/discussing it or are you a lone voice?

    Thanks for writing tip 41. Food for thought, as ever.

    Matt Badham

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    I think that's my own word, Matt, and I don't know of anyone else trying to talk about it in public. But then, I haven't really looked, Casual Fridays being just me talking off the top of my head.

  • Matt Says:

    Thanks, Paul. You've made me think and I wondered if there was any 'wider reading' on the subject I could do.

    I'll just have to some 'wider thinking' instead. ;o)

    Looking forward to the next 'Casual Friday'.

    Matt Badham

  • Ria Says:


    I see it as a "careful what you wish for" situation. too many people protested too many times.

    the BBC and others responded with: "you don't want to get offended? all right, we won't offend you. we will airbrush the religion [and other controversial things] away."

    I first cottoned onto this when I heard about the things the BBC won't have Big Finish include in their DOCTOR WHO audio plays any more.

    the family animated film THE SECRET OF KELLS takes in a monastery... despite him, no references to God or Jesus and not a single cross. (still a good film regardless.)

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    I agree, I think a lot of this is a kind of passive/aggressive reaction on the BBC's part to the Jerry Springer: The Opera protests of a decade or so back. (And how hideously misjudged they were.) Mind you, 'the BBC' is very rarely one entity, and usually this sort of stuff is decided by someone at one desk with their own range of worries, tics and prejudices.

  • colin-john Says:

    Casual, even thou I'm only catching up with your blog on a casual Tuesday...and I may well be catching up with the next one as I'm out celebrating a 50th birthday. Thankfully, not my own. Thou it won't be long :ol

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Welcome aboard.