Monday, February 08, 2016

Whographica

I have a new book out in September. According to the press release, Whographica is "a journey through the Doctor Who universe by Steve O'Brien and Simon Guerrier, with infographics and visualisations from Ben Morris."

As part of the research, I got Dr Christopher Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society, identifying the year in which the Daleks visit the pyramids, as seen in The Daleks' Master Plan (1965-6).

In other news, out in December is The Sontarans, an audio adventure I've written in which the First Doctor meets... well, guess.

"It was established in 1974's The Time Warrior that the Doctor had encountered the Sontarans before," says producer David Richardson in the announcement. "That line of dialogue fired up our imaginations, and Simon's thrilling script is the result - a full-blooded war story set in deep space."

Peter Purves plays Steven and the Doctor, Jean Marsh is back as Space Security Agent Sara Kingdom while Dan Starkey plays the Sontarans.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Dan Dare

Sci-Fi Bulletin reports on a new audio version of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, and says I am writing one of the stories.

I'm adapting "Reign of the Robots", originally by Frank Hampson and Don Harley, and which ran in the Eagle comic from 22 February 1957 to 24 January 1958. It seems to have been a big influence on The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964). Most exciting.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Genre Reader interview

Me and Scott Andrews - who I killed all those times in The Time Travellers - have been ably interviewed by Will Barber-Taylor for the Genre Reader site - largely about my novella Falls Out, which follows on from the mayhem in Scott's School's Out.

Being both Professionals and Professional Liars, Scott and I manage to get through the whole Ordeal without letting on that we are, in fact, Sworn Enemies.




Sunday, January 24, 2016

#Cosmonauts and #OtherWorlds

We had a great day at two neighbouring exhibitions on the gosh-wowness of space. First, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum (until 13 March 2016).

The show begins with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the visionary physicist who was testing rockets a full decade before the Wright brothers achieved the first manned flight. A huge, hand-made ear trumpet gives a vivid sense of the man, whose deafness stemmed from scarlet fever as a child. That he survived such hardship by being both tough and resourceful is also what makes him the founding figure of the space age.

Sketches from his notebooks show Tsiolkovsky's perceptive sense of what the future in space would be like - with fun drawings of ordinary life while weightless, and of a cosmonaut rushing to rescue a comrade whose lifeline has snapped. Yet facing this is a model of a rocket based on another Tsiolkovsky design, one level naively fitted with baths.

What follows is in the same vein: the incredible vision and ambition, tempered by the tricky, counter-intuitive practicality of getting into and surviving in space.

The exhibition covers the politics behind the Soviet space programme - for example, lead rocket engineer Sergei Korolov had spent years in the gulag. But I'm glad I'd recently read Nick Abadzis's Laika (2007), an extraordinary, gripping, harrowing account of the first dog in space and the humans responsible for her, which gave a more rounded account of Korolov and the pressures under which he and other Soviets existed.

In fairness, an exhibition panel on Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 became the first person in space, underlines the politics:
“In the end, the decision to select Gagarin as the first cosmonaut was highly symbolic and political, and his working-class upbringing and photogenic smile were just as important as his ability to withstand the extreme conditions of space flight.” 
Last year, I wrote a piece about a Communist pamphlet signed by Gagarin in the possession of Croydon Airport Society. Gagarin's success was a propaganda coup - the exhibition shows him touring the UK, meeting Harold Macmillan and factory workers, and shows off the signed photograph of the royal family he received after he dined with them. But the pamphlet, with its cover illustration showing a black-and-white Gagarin looking down on a pale blue Earth, underlines a missed opportunity: the Soviets had not thought it necessary to provide Gagarin's capsule with a camera.

That error was quickly realised, and the exhibition includes the Konvas cine camera used by second cosmonaut Gherman Titov, the first person to photograph and film the Earth from space. There's also a blurry, black and white image that he took on 6 August 1961.

Another PR coup is spelt out on the panels beside the spacesuit and capsule of Valentina Tereshkova, who on 16 June 1963 became the first woman in space. If that was not enough, her spaceflight lasted just less than three days,
“longer than all the preceding American manned space flights combined”. 
But despite these propaganda successes, the Americans were fast catching up - and the exhibition suggests that this pressure on the Soviets to stay ahead meant they pushed too far, resulting in a series of accidents and failures, and them falling behind in the race to the Moon.

Having made that point, the exhibition then quite takes your breath away by presenting the Soviet LK lander from the never-attempted manned mission to the Moon. Its striking how similar much of it is to the American version - though we wondered how much that was down to both programmes being faced with the same set of problems, or whether there'd been some copying. But the differences are compelling, too, such as the spherical rather than boxy module, and the flourish of the curling handholds.

A lot of the American space programme's rockets and spacesuits are in dazzling white, so a spacecraft in bare, grey metal seems almost naked. I wondered if that also meant cosmonauts were exposed to more extreme temperatures and conditions than astronauts. We learned later that at one point in the programme the Soviets saved space inside their capsules by putting cosmonauts not in spacesuits but in ordinary clothes - a much more hazardous way of doing things.

There's lots to admire in the simple, user-friendly designs of a lot of the Soviet spacecraft. I particularly like the control boxes including a globe of the Earth that rotated in keeping with a capsule's relative position. But I'm a bit glad to be too tall to fit any of the tiny, tight boxes on display, cosmonauts squished up small for hours on end. If we were still under any illusion of space travel being glamorous, a panel tells us that Helen Sharman - first Briton in space - sweated two litres into her endearingly little spacesuit, and had to dry it out afterwards to prevent it going mouldy

It's more than there being a distinct lack of comfort. The exhibition celebrates the incredible mission in 1985 to save space-station Salyat 7 - but considering the risks involved and the conditions faced by the cosmonauts, I wondered if the US would ever have countenanced trying something similar. Laika is good at showing individuals subsumed by the Soviet state, their personal feelings discretely put to one side. And perhaps that's characteristic. Lucy Worsley's Empire of the Tsars showed how little the lives of most Russians counted for, how many died on projects such as building St Petersburg or in fighting horrific wars.

That's the haunting sense I'm left with at the end of the exhibition: that these extraordinary men and women were so readily expendable.

After coffee and cake, we mooched next door to Otherworlds at the Natural History Museum (until 15 May 2016). Brilliantly curated by Michael Benson, it's a collection of jaw-dropping images from the Solar System, blown up large and presented in darkness with a soundtrack by Brian Eno.

Crescent Jupiter and Ganymede
Mosaic composite, Cassini, 10 Jan 2001
A lot of the images present boggling juxtapositions: a close up Moon with a crescent Earth behind it, or a vista of Martian sand dunes that might be waves on an alien sea. A series showing the small black dot of Earth transiting over the fiery disc of the Sun is another good example. There are plenty of unusual angles and perspectives that take a moment to "get".

The trick is that these still images suggest movement on an enormous scale. With perfect simplicity, they show not individual bodies in space but the way they - and little us - are related. After the noise of Cosmonauts and the crowds in the main parts of both museums, it was utterly captivating - not just to me, but to the rest of the visitors gawping round in wonderstruck hush.

(If you can't make it, there's an accompanying, eye-popping book.)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Was Leela black?

Tonight and tomorrow, BBC Four is repeating the 1977 Doctor Who story The Face of Evil, in which Tom Baker's Doctor meets a new friend - Leela, played by Louise Jameson. I interviewed Louise two years ago for Doctor Who Magazine's essential guide to the companions, and with the kind permission of DWM editor Tom Spilsbury, here it is as published...

"How do I say this?" muses Louise Jameson, who played the Fourth Doctor's companion Leela in 1977 and 1978. "I adore Tom Baker now. I want that to come across in what you put. But at the time, on the show, he behaved very badly towards me and I was very unhappy."

This is surprising given that Leela was perhaps the toughest companion ever to travel in the TARDIS. A fearless warrior from a savage tribe in the far future, she loved to fight the Doctor's enemies and even, sometimes, kill. Indeed, she was named after a terrorist who'd been in the news – Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

"Oh really?" laughs Louise.

She didn't know?

"Certainly not back then. I based Leela on a three-year-old who lived upstairs from me and on Bosie, my then dog."

How was Leela like a dog?

"Bosie was highly intelligent, instinctive, inquisitive," Louise explains. "She was a bassenji whippet terrier. Bassenjis have huge ears and fantastic hearing, and she'd –"

Demonstrating, Louise whips her head round, suddenly alert.

"That came from my dog."

Commenting on Leela's eagerness to kill (rather unusual for a Doctor Who companion), Louise confirms that "Tom hated it. You remember that speech of his in my first story? 'No more Janis thorns – ever!' We wrote that in the rehearsal room."

But maybe he was right to object. Louise considers. "At the time I was too connected to just me and my role to really have an opinion. Now that I'm a writer-director-producer and all those things... No, I don't think he was. Leela needed educating but it could have been done over a more interesting story arc than just one speech."

Louise explains that it wasn't merely Leela's character that Tom Baker objected to. "He wanted to travel alone and refused to be part of the audition process, even though he was invited. Pennant [Roberts, director] read the Doctor's lines. He said he gave me the part because I 'made him work'."

So when did Louise first meet Tom?

"After my final audition, very briefly. Philip [Hinchcliffe, producer] and Pennant took me to the BBC canteen for lunch. Tom was filming that day so they called him over and we shook hands across the table. He was still in costume, that great scarf and coat, and he nearly knocked everything over. Then off he went. The next time was on set at Ealing on the first day of filming. We had a tiny rehearsal in my dressing room where we both made suggestions, with Pennant as referee. Then we were filming it."

What suggestions did Louise make? She takes a moment to remember.

"I didn't understand why Leela didn't run away when she saw the Doctor – who she thought of as the Evil One. I wanted something behind me so I had no escape route. Tom didn't like that and Pennant came down on his side so I had to find a reason to stay. It wasn't difficult: Tom is so charismatic. I thought, 'She's in the presence of danger but her instincts tell her he's not dangerous and her curiosity wins out.' I don't think I've ever told anyone that!"

Louise is a committed follower of Stanislavski's theories on acting. "You need a clear objective for every sentence you say and a clear obstacle to saying it," she explains. "That's where the drama appears. Her desire is to run but this man is fascinating so she can't quite leave."

What tradition of acting does Tom come from? Louise's eyes go wide.

"That's such an interesting question! Tom is very cerebral. He's got the most extraordinary voice, and he's very aware of it. But he'd laugh if you asked if he followed Stanislavski. So would Colin Baker. Yet if you look at their work, I think they follow the rules to a tee. All my work is based on that method." She grins. "It comes into its own when you're working on scripts that don't quite cut the mustard, helps you find a way to make them work."

Louise also refers to Stanislavski when asked about Leela's costume – or lack of it.

"It didn't seem gratuitous. She lived in the jungle and the rest of the tribe wore skins too. But I was very naïve then. It didn't occur to me that I would become some kind of sex symbol. But Phillip knew that taking Leela's clothes off was a good move." She laughs again. "It added 2.5 million to the viewing figures."

In her third story, Leela swapped the skins for a full-length Victorian costume, and in Horror of Fang Rock wore jeans and a jumper. "But they realised the value of Leela in a leotard, so that didn't happen again!" Does she regret that, looking back? "No," she says. "If you want to establish a character, it's good to wear one costume throughout."

Did she ever worry about the message it sent, or her responsibility as a role model to the women and girls who were watching? Louise shrugs. "I worry about the text and whatever it takes to honour the writing. If that means stripping off, putting on a corset or pretending to be a man – I just do it."

So how did it affect her – becoming, to use her own phrase, a sex symbol? Louise smiles. "I have this catchphrase: I helped many a young man through a difficult phase in their lives. I find it quite flattering, to be honest. Though that's probably not the PC thing to say!"

To begin with, Louise wore contact lenses to make her blue eyes look brown. In pictures from an early make-up test, her skin looks very dark. Was Leela intended to be the show's first black companion? It was still fairly common for white actors to "black up" – in Leela's third story, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the white actor John Bennett was made up to look Chinese.

Louise is candid. "It was never specified with Leela. Quite honestly, in those photos I think the make-up woman just didn't get it quite right. The dark eyes were because, I was told, Leela meant 'dark-eyed beauty'." Again, she considers. "There was always an hour and a half in make-up before I was allowed on set. I wasn't black but it was more than a tan. One of my sons is mixed race – dual heritage we say now. I think I was meant to have that kind of skin."

Louise left Doctor Who at the end of her contract, declining to stay on for another season or to return in 1980 for Tom Baker's final stories. Yet now she's playing Leela alongside him in audio plays for Big Finish. So what's changed?

"I love Big Finish," she enthuses.

But what about Tom, who made her so unhappy? She shrugs. "He said sorry. That's all it took. Now we get on brilliantly. He's a pussycat – and I'm more sure of myself. And despite everything we were – and still are – hugely admiring of each other's work."

He's never difficult to work with? Her eyes glitter as she smiles – a fierce look that's all Leela.

"He wouldn't dare..."

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Infinite Monkey Cage

Excitingly, I am a guest on the Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 on Christmas Day. It's a special episode devoted to the science of Doctor Who, which I know a bit about. The blurb goes like this:
"Brian Cox and Robin Ince celebrate the festive season with a look at the science of Doctor Who. Swapping the infinite cage for the TARDIS, they are joined on stage by comedian Ross Noble, Professor Fay Dowker, Oscar-winning special FX director Paul Franklin, author and Doctor Who writer Simon Guerrier and the Very Reverend Victor Stock. They discuss the real science of time travel, the tardis and why wormholes are inaccurately named (according to Ross!)."

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Five Who Fans



My distinguished colleague, Dr Marek Kukula, and I were interviewed by the high-brains called Five Who Fans earlier this year, about our book, The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. We responded in our usual highly polished and professional manner.