Thursday, October 01, 2015

The LEGO Book of Love

I'm one of the writers of I Love That Minifigure, a book published this month and devoted to LEGO characters old and new. Researching it was truly a labour of love. I adored LEGO as a kid and still wear the LEGO Space emblem with pride, despite being quite ancient.

By coincidence, the Lord of Chaos has just got into LEGO in a big way, chiefly as the result of that fine fellow Ned Hartley sending us the first issue of his new LEGO Star Wars Magazine.

(Once we'd constructed a miniature X-Wing and Slave I, the Lord of Chaos also wanted to see them in action, so we've worked our way through the Episodes IV, V and VI, and I am told I must take him to see Episode VII when it comes out. You can imagine my distress at this prospect.)

Then on Monday, I discovered the big box of Star Wars LEGO I thought I'd given away years ago in the big clear-out of the house before his Lordship's arrival. There has been much rejoicing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dead of Night

To mark 70 years (and 26 days) since its premiere, I've written about Dead of Night for the new issue of the Lancet Psychiatry.

Ealing's extraordinary psychological thriller - or horror film - has haunted audiences ever since, and led astronomer Fred Hoyle to come up with his "steady state" model of the universe. (He coined the phrase "Big Bang" to dismiss a rival theory, though it's the one we consider now to best fit the evidence.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Radio Times and the Cybermen

Marek and I had a lovely time at the Radio Times Festival on Friday, discussing the scientific secrets of Doctor Who. It was especially exciting (for me) to get asked questions about the science in Time and the Rani (1987) and Silver Nemesis (1988). We were also interviewed for the Radio Times website.
(I wish I'd said "you can become much angrier," but oh well...)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fall Out

Abaddon Books have tweeted the cover of my forthcoming ebook Fall Out, released in November. It's part of their Afterblight Chronicles range (about a world struggling to survive after a devastating plague), and picks up from the end of Scott K Andrews's acclaimed School's Out trilogy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Series 9 costumes and monsters

Doctor Who Magazine #491
Image by Gavin Rymill 
The super new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out in shops now. As well as exclusive previews of the first four episodes of series 9, I interviewed costume designer Ray Holman about Peter Capaldi's fetching red coat and designing the look of Matt Smith's Doctor, and there's the first of a two-part interview with Kate Walshe, SFX producer at Millennium FX, about making disgusting monsters.

Plus there's a feature on Big Finish recasting Doctors and companions, which includes me and Elliot Chapman on the new Ben Jackson. All this and posters, jokes and an insightful review of The Macra Terror. Cripes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ben and Polly in Doctor Who

My new Doctor Who story The Yes Men is out now, starring Frazer Hines as the Second Doctor and companion Jamie McCrimmon, Anneke Wills as Polly and introducing Elliot Chapman as Ben Jackson (a role originally played by the late Michael Craze).

As a vital part of the writing process (or was it prevarication, who can tell?) I watched all the existing Ben and Polly TV episodes and listened to the soundtracks of the rest. On the off-chance it's of interest, here are my thoughts...

The War Machines
The Doctor's new companions
What a delight this story is. There's a special thrill in Doctor Who fighting the internet in 1966 - when the very idea of a computer attached to a phone line was an outlandish, scary concept.

It's also striking to see the First Doctor strolling about in the London of the (then) present day. In the three years that Doctor Who had been running when this story was first broadcast, the TARDIS had landed in the present before - the Doctor lives there in the very first episode and sends his granddaughter to the local school, and later we briefly glimpse the present day in Planet of GiantsThe Chase, The Daleks' Master Plan and The Massacre.

But The War Machines, right at the end of the series' third year, and nearly 150 episodes in, is the first adventure fully set in the present and with the Doctor able to interact with people there, and it creates a template for a lot of Doctor Who to come. Russell T Davies' first scripts for "new" Doctor Who in 2005 used the same idea - monsters invade contemporary London and make use of its newest landmarks, while a real-life news presenter comments on events to add a sense that it might actually be happening.

There's something thrilling about the Doctor interrupting a press conference, arguing with MPs and giving the army their orders (indirectly). It's fun seeing him in a nightclub - something I expect the new series would be more wary of now (they certainly wouldn't do the Jimmy Savile joke). I adore Hartnell's daft performance as he's rung up by the evil computer and it tries to scramble his brain. But is it so ridiculous? Something similar happens in the "hard" SF thriller Snowcrash, with a computer recoding people's brains.

Poor companion Dodo is hypnotised and then written out of the series without very much ceremony midway through the story. It's a brutal exit - she and the Doctor don't even say goodbye. The production team seem far more interested in new creations Ben and Polly. Ben's sulky and cross and his dialogue is riddled with glottal stops. Polly's a secretary who likes clubbing and nice clothes, and is as cheery as Ben can be down. He thinks she's posh - and calls her "Duchess". Their class and attitude makes a nice contrast.

In fact, it could have been the start of a different series: the Doctor disappearing in his police box at the end, leaving Ben and Polly to have trendy, sci-fi adventures in contemporary London. Sir Charles Summer (played by William Mervyn, whose son Michael Pickwoad is the production designer on Doctor Who today) would have sent them on special assignments that the usual authorities couldn't get involved in.

Or maybe that's what they got up to when they returned to London after their travels with the Doctor. What about it, Big Finish?

The Smugglers
I'm only sleeping
This is the first story of the fourth series, and that introductory scene in the TARDIS, explaining the concept anew is lovely. It speaks of a production team making a fresh start: the companions contemporary and real whatever strange adventures they might face.

Polly is posh and says "Jolly well", "super" and "fantastic" - it's clear why Ben calls her Duchess. But she's resourceful, contriving her and Ben's escape in episode 2 by using the local people's superstitions and pretending to be a witch. It's fun that just because she wears trousers everyone assumes she's a boy: it neatly avoids any chance of the cliche that she'll be a damsel in distress.

Ben is a clear contrast, all "And we're away, mate," "yobbo", and "'ang on". And he's the one knocked unconscious and made helpless. They use Ben to make Polly more proactive and independent.

It's not the most exciting story but there's plenty to enjoy. It clearly owes a lot to Winston Graham's Poldark books, and I wonder how modern Doctor Who might riff on the latest incarnation of Poldark as played by Aidan Turner. There would have to be a monster. In fact, compare it to the linked The Curse of the Black Spot (2011), which explains what happened to the Captain Avery whose treasure everyone is seeking in this story.

I don't know the Poldark books but wonder if (or hope) the character of Jamaica is based on someone in them, so that the uncomfortable racist cliche is a reference back to the source material rather than something the production team introduced themselves. Because the attitudes to race in the programme at the time are complex, as we see in the next story.

The Tenth Planet
Krang the Cyberman
Polly compares the TARDIS wardrobe to Carnaby Street. We already know (from Marco Polo) that it can supply practical clothes for wherever they might end up in time and space, but now it - and the series - have a sense of contemporary style.

Again, 1960s Doctor Who has a broad canvas even when on Earth. Having been to China and South America, France, Italy and the Middle East, we're now at the South Pole. Compare that to how the show of this time rarely visits the UK. It makes later Doctor Who look almost parochial.

Setting the story in 1986 rather than the far future makes it more real - though Ben doesn't think it's that close, speaking of 1986 as being "still at sea". There's an effort to make this near future international, with different countries and races on screen. Star Trek was doing something similar - but wouldn't be seen in the UK for years. So was it something in the air, a general vision that the future would be more and contentedly mixed? It seems to be linking the confidence and swagger of the space programme with progressive social ideas.

As we discuss in our documentary, Race Against Time (an extra on the DVD of The Mutants):
"Doctor Who's fourth year clearly made an effort to employ more black and Asian actors. The babbling, superstitious pirate, Jamaica, might be a terrible stereotype in 1966's The Smugglers, but that's not true of the next story, The Tenth Planet. 
Set in the far-off future of 1986, the cast of The Tenth Planet included the respected Bermudan actor Earl Cameron as astronaut Glyn Williams. The script specified Williams as Welsh; director Derek Martinus didn't change the script to accommodate his choice of actor, recognising that the astronaut could be both black and Welsh.
(A point I got from the inspiring chapter on the subject in Gary Gillatt's Doctor Who: From A to Z (1998).)

Ben recognises "CO" as Commanding Officer and describes himself as "Able Seaman Ben Jackson, Royal Navy". Though he's in the merchant navy, that made me wonder about his military experience. We don't know Ben's age, but the actor who played him, Michael Craze, was young enough not to have done national service.

Then note in episode 2 Ben's horror at having to kill a Cyberman, insisting that he was forced to do it. There's also his horror at General Cutler's bloodlust. It doesn't seem likely that Ben has killed before. Would the death of the Cyberman haunt him?

The Doctor seems to have met the Cybermen before. Is there an untold story for Big Finish to explore, or is it simply that he remembers (some of) the events of The Five Doctors (1983)?

In episode 3, Polly offers to make coffee. She's less practical and proactive in this story than in The Smugglers, but uses making coffee to get information from the crew. When asked if she's scared, she replies "I am rather." Note: she's resourceful, brave and inventive, but that doesn't mean she's fearless or "strong".

Ben carries a penknife (he just calls it a knife). He's knocked out - as he was in The Smugglers - and again Polly tends him. He refers to Cybermen as "geezers", and says of Polly, "Take it easy love".

A big problem with the story is that events largely happen despite the Doctor and his companions being there. That's in part due to the necessary rewriting around William Hartnell's absence from episode 3. But I think the writers were more interested in their original ideas: the Cybermen, the Arctic base, the state of the world in the near future. Plus there was no script editor to rein them in (since he was one of the co-writers).

And, oh, the loss of episode 4, where the last minutes play out with little dialogue and only atmospheric sound. How strange and eerie were these final moments of the First Doctor?

The Power of the Daleks
In a Dalek's sights
I've talked before about the brilliance of Ben and Polly doubting that this new bloke can really be the Doctor, and that his identity is confirmed by the most unlikely source: a Dalek. In fact, there's a contrast between the companions: Polly believes it's the Doctor, Ben doesn't.

Watching these stories altogether, and getting the context, a new thought occurs to me: that the famous and oft-repeated shot of a Dalek's eye view of the Doctor is an echo of The War Machines, when the First Doctor grips his lapels and doesn't flinch as a robot menaces towards him. Is this consciously making a contrast between the two incarnations?

The story is all about people being people they're not: the Doctor, the Daleks, the base's leaders. Ben and Polly - who we've known for a relatively short while - are the only ones to be who they claim. They're our fixed points in this story.

There's a rare snippet of information about Ben and Polly's lives before they met the Doctor: we learn that Ben grew up opposite a brewery.

In episode 2, Ben says, "Of course the real Doctor was always going on about the Daleks" - but when? The last time they were spoken of was at the beginning of The War Machines, when he mentioned them to Dodo and then remembered she'd not met them either. Ben and Polly weren't there. Each story has run directly into the next one, so there's been no gaps in which to have that conversation.

Ben's dialogue is still very distinctive: he says "Nuts!", "Me ol' china" and "Are you off your 'ead mate?" I double-underlined the Doctor's dialogue:
I know the misery [the Daleks] cause, the destruction. But there's something else more terrible. Something I can only half remember.
Later, his memories of meeting Marco Polo are a bit mixed up, too, as if that adventure happened to someone else. That's a big influence on my script for The Yes Men.

In episode 3, just as Polly instinctively believes the Doctor is who he says he is, she also trusts Quinn without any particular evidence.

As well as the recorder, the Doctor carries a magnifying glass. That's surely a link to Sherlock Holmes, making the Doctor more of an investigator, an active participant.

And there's the first use of catchphrases: "When I say run, run like a rabbit." Episode 4 introduces "I'd like a hat like that."

In episode 5, Polly describes Ben as "a real man", in contrast to Kebble. The suggestion is that Ben can handle himself in a fight, though what evidence has Polly seen of that?

The Highlanders
Meeting Jamie
This is a great story for Polly, where's she independent and resourceful, chiding Highlander Kirsty in episode 1: "There must be something we can do... Crying's no good." In episode 2, she continues: "Didn't the women of your age do anything but cry?"

Polly can also be mean, telling Kirsty, "You're just a stupid peasant". Though perhaps that's her frustration at their predicament, or a way of getting Kirsty to be more helpful.

But Polly has a cruel streak, clearly relishing it as she blackmails Ffinch and calls him "Algy dear."

The Doctor's disguise in episode 1 is another new trademark for this Doctor.

Ben describes Inverness as a "right rat hole".

Jamie is a piper - but do we ever hear him play the bagpipes? At the end of the story, the Doctor says he'll take Jamie with him in the TARDIS if Jamie teaches him to play the bagpipes, but again that's never picked up on in the TV show. (I's something that's gone into The Yes Men.)

Jamie believes in bloodletting. It's, "the only way of curing the sick."

The Doctor with a gun
It seems especially odd in episode 2 to see (in the screengrabs from the missing episodes photographed by John Cura) this incarnation of the Doctor wielding a gun and at such close quarters. Though he does admit, "I'm not very expert with these things," it's a reminder that the "rules" we think of about this incarnation - and of Doctor Who more generally - have not been established.

In episode 4, Ben at last gets a chance to be resourceful, using a Houdini trick he knows to flex his muscles and escape. (The Third Doctor does the same thing in Planet of the Spiders, citing Houdini as a friend, so perhaps there's a story to be told about Ben learning the trick from the man himself.)

Jamie doesn't escape with his friends, he stays behind in Scotland to help the Doctor and the others across the glen and back to the TARDIS. The story was rewritten at the last minute so that Jamie joins the TARDIS, but I find myself wondering how it originally went. Did he escape with Kirsty? When he leaves the Doctor and returns to Scotland in The War Games (1969), is there any chance he'll catch up with her?

The Underwater Menace
Episode 1, scene 2 has the Doctor and his friends discuss where they might go next. Polly and Ben don't seem to be enjoying their adventures: Polly wants to go home to London and Ben is still bothered by his encounter with the Daleks. The Doctor hopes to see prehistoric monsters (again, perhaps there's a story in that.)

Note the short journey times in the TARDIS - since The War Machines, they leave one adventure behind them and are then straight into the next one, with little time to chat let alone have other adventures in between (which is bad news for Big Finish).

In episode 1, Ben calls Polly "love", and says, "You speak foreign". Jamie speaks Gallic. Polly of the Doctor, already recognising the tropes: "I've never seen him go for food like this. It's usually hats."

The story is set sometime after 1968 and the general consensus is that it's 1970, because the next story is set in 2070. Again, it's a near future setting, a touch of reality in what's otherwise a peculiar fantasy. There's no attempt to explain Zaroff's suicidal plot other than him being a mad scientist.

In fact, for all script editor Gerry Davis had recruited ophthalmologist Dr Kit Pedler as a scientific adviser on Doctor Who for this run of stories, surely The War Machines, The Tenth Planet and this one show an inherent technophobia, with science something dehumanising and to be feared.

There's another disguise for the Doctor in episode 2. In episode 3 the Doctor describes himself as "A man. Almost 5' 9", black coat, baggy trousers and a bowtie."

When Zaroff falls ill, Polly is again (instinctively) trusting, as is the Doctor. It's Jamie who thinks (correctly) that Zaroff is faking.

In episode 4, Ben calls the Doctor (jokingly) a "berk" and says, "He ain't normal, is he?" But note his dismissal at the end: "Zaroff, 'oo cares about him?" He was haunted by having to kill a Cybermen, so has he changed as a result of his subsequent experience, especially with the Daleks? Or is he simply prioritising, and is more worried about Jamie and Polly?

Jamie calls Ben "Benjamin" and feels safe inside the TARDIS - a set up for a gag as the Doctor loses control. The Doctor says he's never previously wanted to take the TARDIS anywhere in particular, but the strong suggestion here is that he can control the ship. (As we learn, they're only sent off course because of the Gravitron.)

The Moonbase
Groovy space gear
The first episode of this is a keenly felt loss. How I'd love to see the Doctor and his friends in spacesuits bounding across the surface of the Moon.

Ben knows there are 200 million miles from Mars to the Moon (in fact, the distance changes as both bodies orbit the Sun at different rates, but the average distance is about 240 million miles, so he's pretty much correct). He also seems to know about radiation - in episode 3 he says the temperature inside the Gravitron's thermonuclear powerpack "is about 4 million degrees."

Ben teases Polly for being a nurse - though she's looked after him twice when he's been knocked unconscious.

In episode 2, Polly recognises the Cybermen even though they look different - again, she's instinctive. In episode 3, the Cybermen recognise the Doctor despite his change in appearance (they might remember him from forthcoming stories The Wheel in Space and/or The Invasion, which take place before the events of this story).

The Doctor says he took some kind of medical degree in Glasgow under Lister in 1888. He certainly knows how to use a pathology lab. Does that mean he knows Madame Vastra? It's 1888 when we meet her in A Good Man Goes to War (2011), so perhaps it's the Second Doctor who rescues her.

It's fun when Hobson talks about the Cybermen: rarely for Doctor Who (at least until it came back in 2005), do events of previous stories become part of Earth history. They are quickly forgotten.

Note also that it's another multicultural, multiracial future. How outlandish would it have looked at the time that everyone in space is wearing tee-shirts? Speaking of which, this is the story where Jamie wears a polo-neck for the first time - which he'll continue to do for much of his time in the series. Is that, then, futuristic clothing?

The Doctor's conversation with himself in episode 3 is interesting: it seems as if we're hearing his inner thoughts, which is another breach of what we'd now think of as a "rule" of Doctor Who.

In the 1990s, a clip of the Doctor asking Polly to make coffee while he tries to puzzle out the mystery was used on documentaries to illustrate the sexism in the series. Yet in context I don't think that's fair. For one thing, both Ben and Polly are trying to be useful. Ben is asked to tidy up, which he clearly thinks is demeaning, and then gets in everyone's way. Polly is happy to help, and her coffee is what leads the Doctor to his revelation about how the Moonbase crew are being infected. Her positive attitude leads to the solution.

What's more Polly is again the one to come up with a way to stop the Cybermen, taking Jamie's suggestion of "holy water" and suggesting nail varnish remover instead. It's nicely worked out between the three companions. Polly isn't sure it will work and says, "I'm gonna try an experiment" - so Ben calls her "Professor". He's the one that knows nail varnish remover is made of acetone (Polly doesn't know that). He's the one who reworks the fire extinguishers for the "Polly cocktail" they're making. At least in the animation of the missing episode on the DVD, it's Polly who takes out the Cybermen.

But something's about to change. On the making-of documentary on the DVD, Frazer Hines (who plays Jamie) says The Moonbase was the final story not to have been written directly for him, that up till this point in the series he was largely taking lines from Ben and Polly or being left unconscious. He says things changed with the next story - but, as we'll see, I think that was at the cost of Ben and Polly

Actors Michael Craze and Anneke Wills only had six weeks left on their contracts at this point, which were not renewed. The same production team who created Ben and Polly and wrote such dynamic, fun stuff for them seem to have decided not to keep them on, and it's as if they then lose interest.

The Macra Terror
There's some fun stuff early on as Polly goes for a shampoo and Jamie resists but is flattered by the attention. We learn Ben has been in the Mediterranean - another rare bit of detail about his life before The War Machines. The three companions wear uniforms, and Polly says Jamie looks "super".

Ben is hypnotised so that he looks forward to work, the suggestion being that he usually drags his feet, and a reminder of the gloomy soul we met in his first story. In fact, I think he's changed a lot since then.

Polly is horrified by Ben's betrayal, and there's some interesting conflict about how much he's been taken over: he redeems himself by offering to let Polly escape from the Macra, then denies he did so to his masters. Later, the Doctor picks up on that: "I always knew you were a tough customer." It's a reminder of what Polly said in The Power of the Daleks about Ben being a "real man", though that's not something we often see.

Jamie refers to his friends as a "lassie and an old man". Just as the Doctor had a defining speech in The Moonbase about evil needing to be fought, here he declares that "bad laws were meant to be broken." It's a new dynamism: the Doctor as an active participant hero.

Polly becomes a miner, working with the men, but when the Macra attack she's a lot more screamy than she's ever been before. I suppose there's an argument that that's a fair response to the continuing stress of all she's been through since meeting the Doctor. But I think she's written here as a more generic and less interesting character.

There's fun in episode 4 when Jamie is required to do a "gay and cheerful dance" - again which we can't see because the episode is missing. At the end of the story a dance festival will be held every year in the Doctor's memory - and he gets a majorette's hat. He and his friends dance their way out and away to the TARDIS, which would be fun to see. It's nice to finish a story with them enjoying themselves for a change.

The Faceless Ones
Bye bye!
This story does not follow on directly from the end of the last one - the only Ben and Polly story not to do so, so the only one with a clear gap into which Big Finish or anyone else might insert new stories. Note, too, that Polly's hair has really grown since The Macra Terror, suggesting a lot of time has passed.

It's great that episode 1 exists to watch after so many missing episodes, and what sights it offers. The location filming at Gatwick is properly thrilling - bold and contemporary and real. It still feels relevant - taking the ordinariness of cheap flights and making it weird and scary.

Polly is so upset about the dead man they discover (despite all the death she's witnessed on her adventures) that Jamie hugs her. Is that out of character, or a symptom of her exhaustion?

The Doctor again has his magnifying glass, and his shuffling, bow-legged walk is so comic - and distinctive. It's not an original thought, but how much do we miss from these stories by not being able to see what he's doing?

Just as Ben was hypnotised in the last story, Polly is hypnotised in this one. No one mentions that fact (perhaps because The Macra Terror was for them a long time ago).

Jamie says "kiddin' on", "lassie" and "greet". He steals Samantha's ticket by kissing her. On the plane at the end of episode 4, he runs off to be sick - and that's consistent with his earlier fear of planes as "flying beasties". But we soon learn he's being smart, using the "sickness" to hide and so find out what's really going on. Again, he's intelligent if ignorant. Yet whereas he spotted Zaroff faking his illness, here he's surprised by the double of his friend Crossland.

Samantha Briggs refers to the brainwashed Polly as a "stuck-up thing", and it seems especially unfair that that isn't corrected - this being effectively Polly's last episode (because she and Ben only appear briefly at the end of episode 6, in pre-recorded scenes). Would Polly and Samantha have got on? I crave more adventures with Samantha as a companion, and love her response on seeing the real Pinto: "Flippin 'eck!"

She rocks it -
Sherlock's mum in episode 4
I wouldn't mind Wanda Ventham's Jean Rock as a companion, either. Perhaps there's a spin-off series of strange alien murder mysteries for Rock and Briggs to solve.

Though we don't see Ben and Polly for most of the rest of the story, they're often mentioned - and the Doctor insists in episode 4 (without any evidence) that they're still alive. It's odd to think of those episodes being recorded, and Patrick Troughton insisting that we'll see his friends again while knowing they've already left the series.

It shows how well established Jamie is that when he appears as a Chameleon in episode 6 and has lost his Scottish accent, it is really creepy.

Blade shoots Chameleon Janice, and there's a notable lack of judgment from the Doctor about all the humans and Chameleons killed in this story. Also, does Blade's original stay behind for the bargain to work?

And then we're back to Gatwick, where Ben and Polly realise that it's the same day on which they met the Doctor in The War Machines.

Just as with Jackie Lane as Dodo, Michael Craze and Anneke Wills left the series midway through a story, but it's nice that this time there's a prerecorded sequence so they can goodbye at the end. It still feels a bit abrupt and brutal - they've been missing for four episodes and then we just have time to wave them off.

Polly wants to stay in London "a bit", rather than leave the TARDIS. Ben says of being back home that, "it's good to feel normal" - chiming with what he said about the Doctor in The Underwater Menace. The Doctor rather makes the decision for them, saying they're lucky to get back to their own world.

Which is odd since he's the reason they left their world in the first place, and because the strong suggestion in The Underwater Menace is that he can control the TARDIS if he wants to. So is he lying so that they don't feel bad about leaving him?

The Doctor tells Polly to look after Ben, and off they go. What became of them? (A long time ago, I tried to address how Polly might have struggled to return to ordinary life in a short story.)

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Jamie are plunged straight into their next adventure. There are few gaps between the stories for the next year...