Is darker better?

According to the Daily Mirror a Doctor Who “source” has used words like “darker” and “scarier” to describe the next series (Series 12). But are those things good for Doctor Who?

Disclaimer: I’m going to say some things in this blog that sound prescriptive about what Doctor Who “should” be. They’re just my opinions.

So, in my opinion the series thrives best when it’s accessible to all audiences, let’s say from age 6 up. There’s a huge difference between being scary in an unreal, fantasy-adventure way (‘Dalek’, ‘Blink’) and scary in a jarring adult way. Doctor Who doesn’t always get that tone right, but it does it best when it knows what it is and where to draw the line. The handling of cremation in ‘Dark Water’/’Death in Heaven’ was for me too real; unnerving in the wrong way. The same goes for aspects of ‘World Enough and Time’ (“pain pain pain”). It’s the difference between a 12 and a PG rating in the UK. Your mileage may vary, but for me Doctor Who should aim for PG. It should feel like safe, family-friendly horror.

I think we’ve moved past the days of ‘The New Adventures’, when Doctor Who tried to “grow up” by becoming grim and seedy (okay I haven’t read most of them, don’t @ me). The series since 2005 definitely skews a bit older in some aspects than the classic show; towards character, romance and complexity. But that’s okay. Kids can handle those things just fine. What it doesn’t do on the whole is try to be ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’ in that way that you think represents maturity when you’re 15, when you think the 1960s Batman TV show is embarrassing and Zach Snyder is the epitome of being grown up.

If anything the modern series has properly grown up. Grown up enough to not care about being “mature”. It’s embraced its own silliness: the colour, the space fantasy, and the bonkers bits. It’s embraced positivity and hope and done so in an unselfconscious way that isn’t kitsch, or doesn’t care if it is.

A big part of how much kids can take in a show like this is how safe they feel, and a big part of that is about how welcoming the characters are, and how safe THEY feel. It’s okay to put the characters in dire peril, it’s rarely okay to actually kill them. Brilliant though ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’ are, the horror they put Bill through is right on the edge of being wrong for the show. (If she hadn’t survived I would condemn it outright, but her deus ex machina rescue–though a little bit artless–is beautiful and saves it for me.) It’s one reason why I think that consciously setting out to make the Twelfth Doctor off-putting in his early episodes went slightly too far. You never want the audience questioning, as Clara does in ‘Deep Breath’, whether the Doctor will come back and save them. He or she can be alien, can have different attitudes towards other aliens, can be angry at humanity, but above all else they have to be someone who cares when you’re in danger and who will always save you. Do that, and the rest is all grace notes. Don’t get me wrong I adore Peter Capaldi, I adore the Twelfth Doctor and I largely don’t feel that he was un-Doctorish. But there were moments early on, they were deliberate, and they didn’t quite work. You can see that they knew it, because the writing and the performance took a rapid step back from them, and what we ended up with from that slight misstep is a lovely character arc for the Twelfth Doctor throughout his run, culminating in “Just be kind”. And that’s what the show is about, what it should always be about. It’s what Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is emphatically about: your best friend from outer space.

So when I hear that the show will be darker my response is to hope that darker means central characters who are heroic and likeable, who may face horror and personal struggles, who may stumble, but who always emerge triumphant and always keep me safe; “darker” that isn’t cruel or cowardly but is exciting and scary and fun. Let’s wait and see, because I suspect that’s exactly what we’re going to get.

Green Eggs and 5M

I would not, could not, on TV

They did not finish it, Sam, you see

I did not see it with linking narration

I did not read the novelisation

I did not listen to Paul McGann

(It’s not the original, Sam I am.)

Not on a video!  Not on TV!

Not on Big Finish!  Not DVD!

(Maybe that bit in The Five Doctors

But only Tom Baker punting in Oxford)

I have not seen it here or there

I have not seen it anywhere!

But I do own the Blu Ray.


Text ripped off from Dr Seuss by Iain Clark

Artwork by Lee Binding.

Putting myself out there

I was fired up by Dublin and the experience of exhibiting and selling my art. So much so that I’ve opened an Etsy shop to sell original artwork and giclée prints. You can find that under the “Shop” menu on this site, or just click here: www.etsy.com/shop/iainjclarkart. Pricing is a tricky thing, but I’m aiming to keep the prints at affordable prices. Originals are a bit more precious to me and I keep being told not to undersell my art, so those have a bit more of a price tag attached.

In another experiment (i.e. new for me, old hat for the rest of the internet) I’ve started a Facebook “Artist” page to share works in progress and prep pieces that never seem to make it as far as this blog. I’ve already added some WIP for a new painting of Drummer from The Expanse, and some background on how I created the cover to the Dublin 2019 Souvenir Book. You can find that Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/iainjclarkart, and if you “Like” the page (it’s what all the kids are doing) then you’ll see any updates as and when I post them.

WIP painting of Drummer from The Expanse TV series.
WIP painting of Drummer from The Expanse TV series.

An Irish Worldcon

My 50th birthday was two days before we flew to Dublin 2019. I was juggling work, family, artwork commission, a presentation, fitting artwork into luggage, and the endless production line of convention signage. I barely had time to breathe, let alone anticipate it.

And then we went. And it was amazing.

So many good things happened to me personally at this convention, but also so many good things happened to other people. Or just happened. I had a small, personal moment of bliss strolling on my own through the dealers’ room and being briefly overwhelmed by the sense of good-natured community in all the people who thronged the room. Worldcon is the kind of place where you can strike up a random conversation in a queue and immediately find you have interests in common. (Which is lucky as there was a lot of queueing). Or look around and just enjoy people in cosplay; or geeky t-shirts whose obscure references you get, or don’t; or the random dragon wandering around the concourse; or the lady in the butterfly dress who donated a butterfly to our daughters; or the cheerful cyberpunk madman who took it upon himself to wrangle the queues.

It’s hard to convey the worlds within worlds. At any given moment there are at least 8 other things you could (and probably should) be doing instead. It should be stressful, but is more often like drifting in a warm bath of opportunities, each as appealing as the next, so that missing any one thing feels like a minor irrelevance.

One such opportunity was the workshop for the Belter creole language used in The Expanse (originally from the books but developed and codified in the TV show). I’ve done fan art of The Expanse, and this was a little jewel of a session, a crash course in another language (an invented one) delivered entirely in character in ‘Lang Belta’ by Hanne-Madeleine (Iro) Gates Paine and Kagan MacTane (@Paine_MacTane), with plenty of funny (and only mildly terrifying) audience participation. The two presenters even spoke to each other and cursed their computer in character. We visited them in the bar afterwards and got our names translated into Belter (Iyeng Kelarek and Dzhanet Kelarek if you’re interested). Such an unexpected joy.

Although I did the covers for the Souvenir Book and the Pocket Guide as well as lots of promo artwork ahead of the convention, this was my first time actually exhibiting original artwork (in the Art Show over at the second venue The Point, a slightly inconvenient 10 minute walk or tram ride from the CCD). I arrived on Thursday afternoon just after the show opened which was fairly flustering, but I had a lot of help getting set up from Janet, Niall, Nic and others. Not only did I sell lots of prints, I sold three original paintings/drawings, which frankly was more than I dared hope. (So much so that I’ve opened an Etsy shop on my return!) More than that, admiring all the other art, being part of that group of fellow artists, and even having a fascinating panel discussion with a few of them (Maeve Clancy, Rob Carlos and Kaja Foglio), was hugely fulfilling.

My wife Janet also had a display over at The Point featuring her Bayeux Tapestry recreation plus Tardis, hand-stitched at the original size using authentic techniques. It’s a shame that the full-size Tardis wasn’t able to be on display as planned, which might have helped more people find it! However she got lots of well-deserved praise for it; it’s wonderful.

The convention staff were also incredibly helpful and gracious. I was touched and honoured to be one of those who got a “Dublin 2019 Hero” medal (from Chair James Bacon and Sara Felix) for all the artwork I contributed – all the more so because so many volunteers gave selflessly of their time in the run up to the convention, and also during it. I felt quite lazy for taking the convention off! Incredibly flattering things like this kept happening throughout the con, like being unexpectedly ask to sign a batch of prints of my art work. (Ten minutes of giggling inwardly and pretending to be Neil Gaiman). Just walking around seeing my art on t-shirts, on covers, on Glasgow in 2024 materials was absolutely lovely. My lanyard said “Convention Artist in Residence” which is both a) untrue, and b) absolutely lovely.

Another personal highlight (and cause of giggling) was walking into the Philharmonic concert and seeing my Kraken image on the big screen with the addition of musical notes (Vincent Doherty’s idea, I later learned!) This was the first piece I ever did for the convention, back in 2014 when my friend Emma England asked me to contribute some art (and thank heaven she did). In all that time I never once imagined that the Kraken was playing the Samuel Beckett bridge like a harp. And yet it clearly is. So funny.

I also got a lovely note on my art show display from someone wanting to turn one of my paintings into a costume design (how great is that?) Someone else wants to make a quilt inspired by my Green Woman image.

Lots of people worked harder than me and contributed more than me at this convention, but I feel astoundingly lucky to have been a part of this fantastic event. To have been seen, to have been thanked, to have seen and thanked others in return.

The other other thread of the event was that we got to catch up with many friends in Dublin, and share an exorbitantly priced meal (whose bill is still being worked out to this day). Janet and I also snuck time in our schedules to visit the Book of Kells and The Long Room at Trinity College (it was booked out online but we turned up at opening time and they were still selling tickets at the door). This visit was another small, spiritual moment for me. Particularly the architecturally astounding Long Room, which is as close to a cathedral of knowledge as you’ll ever see (even if rather male-dominated). I’m not religious but it felt sacred and quite moving. And also fantastical, like an intrusion into our reality from a world made of story.

On the very last day of the convention I did the solo presentation about my art that I had foolishly agreed to do when Sara asked me a few weeks earlier. I barely had any time to write this before the convention and certainly hadn’t managed to do a run through. I was still inserting slides the day before! In the event I wasn’t too nervous. This was probably helped by the fact that although the venue was an Odeon cinema screen and therefore huge, there were only 7 people in the audience — including my wife, and our friend Niall who HEROICALLY came to see me despite having been up all night at the Hugo Losers party. This was still more people that I was banking on for a no-name artist in the graveyard slot on the last day. I focused on several milestone bits of art and on my development over the 4 or 5 years leading up to the con (although as Niall pointed out my narrative sort of falters at the point where I go “and then I decided to do a full painting, so I did”.)

So that was Dublin 2019. Or a tiny slice of one person’s experience of it. I didn’t even mention the Masquerade – part costume competition, part performance art – which is so deliciously mad and wonderful that it makes me happy it exists, even if I will never fully understand it. Or the touching closing ceremony. Or the “Glasgow in 2024” party with whisky and Tunnocks teacakes. Or Jeanette Ng’s firebrand speech at the Hugos. Or learning to use Whatsapp like some kind of young person. Or meeting Jim Fitzpatrick who did the iconic Che Guevara image. Or queueing in driving horizontal rain for Hugo Award Ceremony tickets with Janet and Liz.

And now I’m back, and working on artwork for the Glasgow in 2024 bid (by which time our daughters may even be old enough to come with us – Ulp!) and opening a new Facebook page and an Etsy shop and trying to hold onto some small part of the creative positivity I experienced in Dublin.

Jodie Whittaker and ‘Doctorishness’

Not all criticism of Series 11 is sexist. (Although by god when it is sexist you can smell it a mile off.) Absolutists aside, I’ve seen plenty of sensible critique.

But that doesn’t mean assumptions about gender aren’t a factor. For me, The Thirteenth Doctor is as iconically the Doctor as any we’ve seen. So when people who are not (obviously) sexist say they feel Jodie Whittaker’s female Doctor lacks eccentricity and gravitas, that she’s not ‘Doctorish’, I do wonder what expectations are at play, and to what extent those expectations are rooted in gender. There are still strong, unspoken cultural taboos against women being funny or authoritative. It can be done brilliantly and yet still read as ‘off’ because it subverts expectations.

There’s a further layer of expectation to overcome. It’s perfectly possible for a woman to act precisely like a male hero: the arse-kicking, wise-cracking “strong female character” who holds her own in a man’s world by behaving like a male stereotype. It’s an assertive female character we do see slightly more often in drama. But when women are strong in a different way from men I think we arguably find more resistance. The Thirteenth Doctor is certainly not above the egoism and speechifying of past Doctors, but I wonder if there’s a tendency to undervalue her particular style of quirkiness and moral indignation because it’s often expressed in a less bombastic way.

I’ve seen some saying the Thirteenth Doctor hasn’t had her ‘big Doctor moment’. I’d argue she’s had loads. It’s just that Whittaker doesn’t grandstand. She foregrounds the Doctor’s sincerity, urgency and a sense of searching inside herself. ‘Big Doctor moments’ needn’t involving standing on Stonehenge with a microphone.

It’s different from recent Doctors, but by no means unprecedented. It reminds me of Peter Capaldi’s speech in ‘Thin Ice’ about the value of a human life; underplayed in a searching way that seems almost confessional. It reminds me too of Matt Smith’s marvellous “we’re all stories in the end” speech.

I’m conscious that there’s a risk of pigeon-holing the first ever female Doctor Who as “the empathetic one”. Whittaker is a quixotic bundle of energy and personality, it’s just that she’s also very grounded. For me her performance is of a piece with the general change in tone that the show has undergone this year, to a less grandiose, more personal style. I’d go so far as to say we’d have seen some of her more self-effacing traits in a male Thirteenth Doctor because it feels so organic to the new era.

And I like this vision of Doctor; this human, real, vulnerable hero who still triumphs through wit and determination. I like it in male Doctors too: Peter Davison’s breathless sense of not being entirely in control; Patrick Troughton’s fallibility and indignation. Again these are not new traits in the Thirteenth Doctor, only the emphasis has shifted. What’s different is that male actors are allowed to subvert male stereotypes without having to prove their credentials. Whittaker, at least to some, does have something to prove. Despite the striking variety of performances that have come before her in the role, she can’t just be the Doctor and make the Doctor her own. She also has to measure up to expectations; to be funny in the right way, authoritative in the right way. To be at the more arse-kicking, wise-cracking end of the Doctor’s personality. And I think it’s worth questioning where our gut feeling about that “right” way comes from, whether we’d be holding a male actor to those same expectations, or whether we’re letting unexamined assumptions get in the way.

Jodie Whittaker is a great Doctor. She’s silly and quirky and funny. She’s passionate and indomitable and loyal. She’s a champion of what’s right, a righter of wrongs. She’s every bit the Doctor, and she’s every bit herself.

One year’s work

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So this is what one year’s creative output looks like (for me). It was a lot tougher to squeeze this year’s art into the photo than it was last year, and I was pleasantly surprised when I got it all together in one place.  (It’s also what one year’s beard looks like.  I was all stubbly this time last year.)

Putting your art out into the world is a strange thing.  I vacillate between bullish self-confidence and agonising self-doubt, often over the same picture, within the same hour.  I can cheerfully post fan art on twitter, on my website, on tumblr, even copying in other accounts, and then immediately cringe and want to take it back and/or issue formal written apologies and point out all the crap bits.

I know I’m far from the best artist out there. I also flatter myself I’m not the worst, and when there’s a particular image I’m proud of, I want it to do well.  It’s like entering your pet dragon into the Best Small Dragon category at the village fair (it really isn’t, but bear wth me). I give it a benevolent little push onto the stage, a bit of encouragement, I’m pleased if it gets a good reception, maybe a ripple of applause, disappointed if the audience runs screaming from the blazing tent.

But I’m also realistic about these things. If after a couple of tries and encouraging nods the whole thing isn’t catching fire then I take my dragon home and we have a nice cup of cocoa and we move onto the next thing.

Okay, now I want a pet dragon.

In a similar vein, I nearly exhibited a few pieces at the FantasyCon gallery in Peterborough. After some exploratory conversations I realised I didn’t have time to get everything framed, packed and sent by the deadline.  I also bottled it.  But it started me pondering about such things so I’m slowly starting to have a few bits of art framed in case I decide to exhibit them at future cons.  I’m quite pleased with how these two turned out.

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My fan art pieces from this year have already found their way onto the internet, here and elsewhere. I’ve done a lot more fan art this year and slightly fewer for Dublin. (I’ve also done a few pieces just for myself, some of which may show up in public in future, some of which were just test pieces.)  I’m still trying to find a good balance, but I have the luxury of coming up with my own ideas and mostly it’s about where inspiration takes me.   This year, inspiration has mostly taken me to Peter Capaldi who has one of those faces that was born to be painted.  I’ve also done old and new school Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Deep Space Nine, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Babylon 5, and Twin Peaks.  All favourites of mine, all done out of sheer affection for the source material.

Moving into acrylics last year (instead of scanning and  colouring my line art) has been good for my productivity, and increasingly I’m painting without a preparatory pencil sketch which speeds things further.  My portraits of Tom Baker, Roger Delgado and Jeremy Brett were one-evening paints (2-3 hours), Mira Furlan as Delenn took two nights.  If I painted like that every evening I’d be a lot more prolific, but sadly I don’t…

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The Tom one even found its way (at postage stamp size) into the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine, which would have delighted the 10 year old me who read it from Issue 1.

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Some of my more complex art has taken much, much longer.  I spent a month working most nights back in January for my detailed painting of spacecraft arriving in Dublin.  A more recent one took me 3 months (on and off, working and reworking).  I abandoned it once and overpainted large sections before I finally completed it to my satisfaction.  I’m glad I did  – I’m quite pleased with it now.  If I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years it’s to trust the process rather than throwing in the towel when a picture looks bad.  But it’s hard, sometimes.

I also tried some larger full face images like the framed Capaldi one above, and the Sandman image, which took about a week each. I might try a few more along those lines.

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I was also quite pleased with the raw emotion I got into this Peter Capaldi image, even though it’s not quite as achitecturally solid as some of my portraits.  I don’t want to just mindlessly regurgitate promo images in acrylic, and I go back and forth over whether this looks good or not, but I wanted that sadness in his eyes.Saint_Capaldi_(c_iainjclark2017_500w

My Dublin artwork generally hasn’t found its way here, and won’t until it’s been used officially by the convention so it’s hard to talk about it much (although if you squint  behind me in the photo at the top you can get a preview.) It’s been a huge year for Dublin, which won the 2019 WorldCon site selection unopposed, and things are accelerating. There’s already a t-shirt based on slices of my artwork available, which is a lovely feeling…

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I also took some postcards of my Dublin art along to this year’s FantasyCon…DK-OuJIWkAEh7dt.jpg large

I still feel like I’m finding my way with paint – a medium that, until last year, I’d seldom touched since A Level art – but just doing art is a great way of levelling-up.  As for next year, my wife just got me some water-soluble oils and some liquid acrylic colour, neither of which I have any idea how to use, so that should shake things up for 2018.  I’m also keen to paint more women and more people of colour — something that could probably be achieved by not painting Peter Capaldi all the time, now I come to think of it.

Star Trek Juvenalia

Another bit of juvenalia for you.  This is an A3 pencil drawing I did back in my youth (1988 to be precise).

It’s the companion piece to the Star Trek movie piece here.  In accordance with the source material that one was 16:9 format, while this one was 4:3!  I think pretty much all the photo reference was taken from my well-thumbed copy of the Star Trek Compendium, and I’ve reproduced the lack of resolution perfectly!

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