Where do you get your ideas from?
It’s a question writers get asked all the time. Politicians and dictators rarely get asked the same question but seem determined to tell everybody at length in memoir after memoir after interminable memoir.
People have a tendency to assume everyone gets their ideas from some individual place in their brain. But imagine, just for a moment, that’s not the case.
Meet Dracksil Forg, idea salesman. For the right price, he’ll imagine you any darned thing you want, from the plot of a major blockbuster novel to a way to crush your local star system under your boot heel. The plans will be detailed, precise, not always easy but always, always, foolproof. If you follow Dracksil’s recipe, you’ll get the result you want.
And the best bit is that he’s strictly an ideas man. Strictly a service industry. Not for him the ethical qualms of an activist. He merely solves any equation you bring him for X, where X is the desired result.
Dracksil Forg is a gorgeous idea in the Doctor Who universe because he’s not, in himself, evil, but he is, or at least seems to be, a kind of anti-Doctor, a profit-incentivised version of our favourite Time Lord. Where the Doctor goes careering through time and space, fixing random problems he encounters, Dracksil Forg sits perfectly still in his own time and space, and waits for problems to walk through his door. For the right amount of money, they leave with a solution. The cosmos changes as a result of his actions, but Dracksil Forg is like a ghostwriter – he never puts his name to the actions that ensue from his plans, but those who need him will know his name.
Except he’s started to come to the notice of someone else. Some lanky, grumpy beanpole with fighting eyebrows and a runaway mouth. Some would-be legend who, for instance, when paid to poison a particular dignitary at a dinner, somehow manages to ensure they go home remarkably unpoisoned. Someone who when faced with a drone army of killbots reprograms them to pick plastic out of the oceans instead. Someone who when he encounters a cut-price quantum Death Star…waves a screwdriver at it and turns it into a planetary vending machine.
Very specifically in this instance, the Twelfth Doctor, as voiced by Jacob Dudman. The story is essentially a shedload of set-up and bedding in, a handful of examples of how the Doctor is causing, shall we say, radical customer dissatisfaction on the part of Dracksil’s latest clients (Can you imagine the reviews? Nobody wants to have an army of killbots turn green crusader on them just after they’ve issued their proclamation of power, it just makes you look a pillock), and then a build-up to one of those confrontations in which the Twelfth Doctor particularly excels. When Dracksil and the Doctor face each other in Dracksil’s office (like everyone else, the Doctor has to come and see Dracksil, rather than vice versa), what we get is an immensely satisfying confrontation, not because of any raised voices – the Twelfth Doctor is often most effective when he lowers his voice – but because it absolutely shines with pure distilled Twelfth Doctor tones. There’s a left-field beginning, that seems there just for the fun, but isn’t. There’s an explanation of what’s really going on, opening Dracksil’s eyes to a truth even he has never worked out about himself. There’s a fairly casual insult or two, because, after all, this is the Twelfth Doctor. And then there’s the hope. The Twelfth Doctor’s hope that the universe can be better than its default setting of grim and grasping nastiness if it just dares to be imaginative. If it dares to use its little pudding brains, and can find the better way to be. Pudding, not poison. Greenbots, not killbots. Hunger-ending vending machines, rather than planet-blasting death machines. Think, is the Twelfth Doctor’s main theme. Think. And then be kind.
Ben Tedds won the 2019 Paul Spragg Memorial Opportunity with this story, and it’s easy to hear why. The imaginative leap involved in inventing Dracksil Forg is the kind of blow-your-hair-back brilliance that seems obvious once it’s been done, but which takes a very particular energy of mind to actually invent (arguably in itself pre-empting the theme of the story). The notion of Dracksil’s business – a kind of ‘We can imagine it for you wholesale’ service industry, dealing with its clients at a long business distance speaks to both great science fiction, in the lines of Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams, and to our real world service industries today who, when things go wrong, scuttle away with their hands raised and claim it was nothing to do with them. You could arguably draw a line between what Dick did for memory and perception in We Can Imagine It For You Wholesale and what Adams did for faith and belief with his electronic monk in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Tedds does here for the creative imagination – he farms it out to a service provider, irrespective of what the intended goal might be, and Dracksil Forg is that service provider. It’s an idea that absolutely has legs in the New Who universe, and you can easily imagine how the premise and the examples of the Doctor’s plan-thwarting could have been expanded to fit a whole TV episode.
It feels like Tedds knows his expanded Who-universe, giving us a kind of Easter egg here in the form of a bird-people species from the local cosmic area of the Shansheeth, only where the funeral directors were vulture-people, Tedds gives us legal…ach, you can probably work out which birds he has working heavily in the legal profession. No?
And above all, the spirit of the Twelfth Doctor sings out from the ending of this story. He’s not against people having ideas. He’s not even against people paying someone else to have their ideas for them. But he wants to collapse the callous disregard Dracksil’s allowed himself to have for consequences, arguably echoing the ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ line of the likes of the NRA in our modern world. Guns absolutely don’t kill people if no-one has the idea for guns, and the people who do have the idea for guns can’t be separated from the consequences of their ideas. Likewise, the Doctor argues here, people who have the idea for planet-killing weapons or drone armies need to face up to the consequences of the ideas they have, and the ideas they sell to a hungry marketplace. Especially when kindness and imagination will allow them to have better ideas. Kinder ideas. Ideas that make the universe a better place, rather than a deader place.
It’ll be interesting to see where Tedds’ career goes from here, but wherever it is, it’ll be worth watching. And any time he gets another Big Finish gig, you’re going to want to pre-order that thing, because The Best-Laid Plans punches well above the weight of a new author Short Trip, weaving some fairly hardcore sci-fi philosophy into the carpet of a thumping good adventure story with some pitch-perfect Twelfth Doctoring to give you a shot of Old Attack Eyebrows that feels like it could have been lifted straight from the screen. The best-laid plans may aft gang wherever they like, but make getting a copy of this story the best plan you lay today and you’ll end your day with a Twelfth Doctor smile. Guaranteed by Dracksil Forg. Tony Fyler