Thursday, May 27, 2021

Doctor Who Magazine #565

Out today, Doctor Who Magazine issue 565 is largely devoted to the series broadcast in 1987 and imminently due out on Blu-ray. Since that was the 24th season of Doctor Who, "24" is the theme of this issue's infographic Sufficient Data, written by me and designed by clever Ben Morris.

Also in the issue, editor Marcus Hearn responds to our recent mention on Countdown, and I've interviewed Margaret Toley, who was secretary to the first four story editors of Doctor Who in the 1960s: David Whitaker, Dennis Spooner, Donald Tosh and Gerry Davis. There's also word on what we're doing next issue, resurrecting the sets of the First Doctor's last story, Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet...

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Design for Doctor Who, by Piers D Britton

This academic study of costume and production design in Doctor Who has been a stimulating read, full of connections and insights that are new to me. 

The author is professor and director of media and visual culture studies at the University of Redland in the US, and his 2003 book, Reading Between Designs: Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner and Doctor Who, continues to be of great use in the stuff I write for the Doctor Who Figurine Collection, not least because Piers and co-author Simon Barker spoke to many designers who have since died, such as Daphne Dare who oversaw almost all the costumes for the first two years of the series. In turn, it's a bit of a thrill to see some of my own work cited in this new volume, almost like some kind of authority.

The book is in three parts. Part One is a breezy history of design in Doctor Who from 1963 to 2020, placing things in context of other TV and film, and trends in design more widely. In Part Two, he traces different ways in which we might judge and evaluate design - basically, how do we tell the good stuff? In Part Three he explores 13 particular instances of design in more depth.

As he says at the start, "In almost every episode Doctor Who [there have been 862 to date] relies heavily on both visual and sound design to create an immediate and powerfully evocative effect" (p. 15), so it's all the more impressive how much he packs in. He's on to something when he says in the introduction that Doctor Who often juxtaposes its relatable, regular characters with the strange places they visit - even when the TARDIS visits the present-day, there's something weirdly, eerily wrong going on. I think there's something else going on, too: the effort of each Doctor Who story to be visually distinct, juxtaposing itself against its immediate predecessor and all those that have gone before. Piers charts some of this, the ways in which, through design, the series converses with itself.

He's right that, all too often in fan criticism, "writing [and performance] has long been explicitly privileged over the visual", with elements of design getting "none of the nuanced evaluation typically lavished on writing and characterisation (p. 119). He uses the 1982 story Kinda as an example of a story highly praised despite serious shortcomings in design: an alien forest realised with pot plants in an overlit TV studio, and the laughable giant snake at the end. As he says, such fan criticism,

"turns Doctor Who's alleged visual crudeness into a mark of distinction: the discerning fan recognises such matters as design as a superficial consideration" (p. 120).

I think there's a corollary to that: Kill the Moon (2014) is an example of a story with very good, realistic design, but it's at odds with a rather whimsical, even silly, plot involving a giant egg. I find myself wondering if critics of the story would not have minded so much had the design been less credible. 

Given my own current interest in the set design of 1960s episodes, I'm particularly struck by what Piers can reveal here. He starts with the 1961 book written by the BBC's Head of Design, Richard Levin, which sounds enormously like my sort of thing:

"A glance at Television by Design reveals a very different BBC from the image which has been cultivated abroad and to an extent also domestically over the last fifty years - the Masterpiece Theatre myth of a BBC whose output is built around period pieces and especially 'bonnet dramas' ... the visual content of his book tells a different story: it overwhelmingly presents a BBC steeped in modernism." (pp. 21-2).

Levin's department, and therefore the futuristic bits of Doctor Who, were, "permeated with the design sensibilities of Constructivism, Neoplasticism and the International Style in architecture" (p. 25). Piers is good not only on such context and influence, but also the practical side of design, especially on the TARDIS interior. The original set, designed by Peter Brachacki in 1963, is the first of Piers' thirteen designs deserving of special attention:  

"Brachacki's TARDIS control room is a specifically telegenic set - which is to say, it is friendly to the relatively low-definition, monochrome screen image of the 1960s and also to the talk-heavy television fiction which was to remain standard until the later 1980s. In many ways, the nearest cognates to the original TARDIS set in BBC programming were the austere, light-filled spaces which Natasha Kroll's Studio Design Unit made for current affairs and talk shows in the years around 1960. In these often exquisitely simple sets, minimal decor and semi-abstract forms focused attention on the presenters and interlocutors ... The control console's hexagonal design, with its rising and falling central column, provided both visual interest and an anchor for dialogue, creating the basis for shots in which three or more people could be groups naturally with their facial expressions clearly visible on camera."(p. 148)

From this, Piers then details how developments in television technology - higher resolution cameras, colour, single-camera shooting - ironically served to reduce the effectiveness of this so achingly modern and telegenic set. It had never occurred to me before to consider the practical reasons why the TARDIS interior needed to change, beyond set pieces having worn a bit thin.

This is just one example. There are plenty more insights, such as the way Barry Newbery designed for stories set in Earth history, "replete with visual detail which intimately evokes the day-to-day life of is protagonists" (p. 23), in contrast to the brutalist, bare visions of the future that Ray Cusick tended to base on a smallish set of recurring geometric shapes.

There are some very minor errors: he includes the Quarks in a list of monsters introduced under producer Innes Lloyd (who had left the programme before The Dominators was commissioned); he includes Donna Noble in a list of characters he says are "working class". But these are quibbles, nit-picking, and I'm sure the result of efforts to pack in detail and cover so much ground.

Personally (and selfishly, as it would be useful for my own work), I'd have liked more direct quotation from the designers themselves. There are also things I don't agree with. Piers has firm opinions on what does and doesn't work: the iconic Time Lord collars are, he says, "ostentatious and campy" (p. 173); the Eighth Doctor's costume in the 1996 television movie, "ill-fitting and ugly"; the Twelfth Doctor's era has, "the tinniest arrangement of the Doctor Who theme" (p. 209). I am actually amazed by the pages devoted to his thesis that the Sixth Doctor's multicoloured outfit, 

"does not represent the worst of Doctor Who's creative stagnation in the mid-eighties. That distinction belongs to the costume worn by Baker's successor, Sylvester McCoy" (p. 182).

He's insightful about the thinking behind and effect of the 13th Doctor's costume - something I've written about in some depth - though he cites a criticism that it might represent a "feminine absorption with style" (p. 215). This (which isn't Piers' view, just one he's quoting) really doesn't hold water - as he shows, having just gone into detail about how much the male Doctors are defined by their outfits. On this, I'm very much with Sophia McDougall re. capes and weddings dresses.

But that's rather the point - I want to argue back and I think Piers is inviting response in what he himself calls, "a first sortie into an immense territory" (p. 221). It's a book to grapple with, interrogate and battle. It has got me thinking anew about a whole load of aspects of Doctor Who. I am sure it will find its way into things I write to come...

Friday, May 14, 2021

Kindred, by Octavia E Butler

"'There's worse things than being dead,' I had said." (p. 283)

Prompted by a recent discussion on the radio of Octavia Butler's Kindred, I reread this book that has haunted me for decades. It's about Dana, a 27 year-old black woman living just outside Los Angeles in 1976, who keeps finding herself back in the early nineteenth century, on a plantation near Baltimore owned by her ancestors. One direct ancestor, Rufus, is the no-good, controlling and unpredictable son of the owner, and Dana realises that he will someday force himself on a slave called Alice, and have a child from which Dana is descended. Until that happens, she must do more than merely survive in this appallingly hostile environment - for all his faults and cruelty, she must keep Rufus from harm.

The title, then, is a pun on Dana's dread for this relative with whom she is somehow bound. As with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, we're never told quite why she travels in time, nor how Rufus can summon her back from the future when his life is under threat. She can only return home, briefly, when her own life is in danger - which happens frequently enough. There's then what happens with her white husband Kevin while she's away, and whether she can transport things or even people with her that might help her survive. It's full of incident and shocking twists as Butler explores the territory: the practicalities against escaping; the state of medicine at the time; the way other black people of the time treat this trouser-wearing, educated black woman; the necessary pragmatism when you don't have any rights and live under constant threat of violence.

It's so brutal, and Dana and other characters under such unrelenting threat, that I stopped and started through it, sometimes only managing a few pages at a time - it's not exactly the right thing to go with lockdown-induced anxiety. Yet it's also a very timely read, exploring the legacy of slavery on us today. The 1976 "present" is no coincidence, where at one point Dana - back in her own time - is torn over celebrating the bicentennial. She refers to the "older people" of her own time who do double takes when they see her with her white husband. There's a sense, too, of how much easier life is for him - in the past and present - compared to what she endures.

I've read a fair number of time-travel stories, many of them addressing race to one degree or another, but this is direct and unflinching, and as much about the haunted now as it is then. Dana is left mutilated by her experience, physically scarred by the past as she lives in the present. We end with her revisiting the places where she was once trapped, looking for the house she once lived in, the grave of the man she was linked to, any trace of the slaves - the people - she knew. There are hauntingly few clues as to what became of them, which implies its own awful story. The implication is that she - and we - continue to live in their shadow.

A few years ago, I researched my own family history and learned that the Guerriers were among the first refugees, arriving in London in 1677, though the paucity of records means we can't be sure of the lineage until 1730. But other branches of my family include those descended from slaves and those descended from slavers. The database of Legacies of British Slavery holds a record for Mary Turner (née Trench), born 9 July 1815 and my great-great-great grandmother (or: her grandson was the father of my grandpa, who died in 2007). On 17 October 1836, Mary was granted £100 13s 8d as compensation for the emancipation of five slaves she owned in Clarendon, Jamaica. Her father received much more. That weighs heavily and I am keen to read Alex Renton's new book, Blood Legacy.

"'You probably needed to come for the same reason I did.' He shrugged. 'To try to understand. To touch the solid evidence that those people existed.'" (p.295)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

On Countdown

Excitingly (and surreally), I was mentioned on today's edition of TV quiz show Countdown. Some 15 minutes in, host Nick Hewer asks Samira Ahmed - who is in Dictionary Corner this week - about being on the editorial review board of the official Doctor Who Magazine

You can watch the clip, but Samira replies:

"The magazine is for fans - and fans of all ages, including a lot of people who grew up watching the original run going back to the 60s. There haven't been that many new episodes over the last year or so, as you can imagine, so a lot of the magazine is doing features on the past. The idea is that you review it to make sure it's appropriate for BBC content and for its audience. What has been fascinating is that there's this whole archaeology of the old episodes. There are all these old episodes that were lost but the scripts survive or floor plans of TV Centre survive with where the cameras were. And there's been this whole thing of features by brilliant writers like Simon Guerrier where they have got together a panel of people who watched the original episode - once - when it was on TV, got them up to get their memories from when they were little children, and then worked out with the maps of the floor plan, surviving bits of scripts, and tele-snaps (which are photos people took off screen) what the plot was and what it looked like. It's like the archaeology of digging up old Anglo-Saxon hoards and reconstructing a ship, but you don't think of doing that with television. But the history of British TV is 70 years-old now or older and I just think it's been remarkable how much social history there is in reconstructing them that way. So it's been a real joy and the magazine has been such a comfort through lockdown for a lot of people. It's that escape into wild adventures in space and time."

As Samira says, I'm just one of an army of DWM archaeologists, many of them more distinguished and erudite. She's referring to the recent series of articles I've co-written with Rhys Williams, attempting to reconstruct the studio sets from a few of the 97 episodes of Doctor Who missing from the archive. The amazing CGI recreations of the are by Gavin Rymill, and so far we've covered:

And there is more to come...