Saturday, December 30, 2023

Adventures Across Space and Time - A Doctor Who Reader

I've just received a copy of this collection of essays and insights on the cultural history and impact of Doctor Who, edited by Paul Booth, Matt Hills, Joy Piedmont and Tansy Rayner Roberts.

I read a proof version in May and was asked if I'd provide an endorsement. My response then is now partially quoted on the back cover:

"A brilliant compendium of the brilliance of Doctor Who fandom. Intelligent, insightful and incredibly wide-ranging, this is a really engaging collection. I love the mix of new analysis and older pieces to give a comprehensive overview. A perfect introduction for those new to Doctor Who scholarship, and packed with interest for more established scholars. There's so much here I'd never even thought of. I finished it then immediately wanted to start reading again."

The book republishes some classic takes, with excerpts from The Making of Doctor Who (1972) by the series' then script editor Terrance Dicks and regular writer Malcolm Hulke, a 1973 letter to Radio Times by a teenage Peter Capaldi (later the Twelfth Doctor), and a 1995 post to by Steven Moffat who was later executive producer of the series. There's a piece on 'canonicity' by my friend Paul Cornell, addressing his TV adaptation of Human Nature for the Tenth Doctor on TV when it was originally a novel featuring the Seventh Doctor. 

There are excepts from cultural historians John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins, whose work I read closely while at university half a lifetime ago. This sits alongside an except from Pier Britton's authoritative book Design for Doctor Who, and a piece by Mary Robinette Kowal detailing the Doctor Who references hidden in her historical fantasy novels.

But what really thrilled me is the new essays original to this collection that cover an enormous range of ground. As I said in my endorsement, there's loads here that was new to this long-in-the-tooth hardcore fan. That was especially true of Magdalena Stonawska's piece on fandom in Poland, Eloy Vieira and Lilian FranÇa on fandom in Brazil and Ting Guo on fandom in China. There's stuff on fanzines and figurines and the financial cost (more than £300!) of following multimedia adventure Time Lord Victorious (of which I wrote one instalment). There's loads here to illuminate, inspire and challenge - and to argue with. What a delight.

(One slightly odd thing: I'm described on the back cover as "producer and author of How The Doctor Changed My Life (2008)", but I edited rather than authored that book, and it was quite a long time ago. I've done one or two other related things since.)

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Garry Halliday and the Disappearing Diamonds, by Justin Blake

This is a concise, 125-page novelisation of the first Garry Halliday serial. The children's TV series about the adventures of an airline pilot ran for a total of 50 half-hour episodes, broadcast on Saturday evenings between 28 February 1959 and 29 September 1962; 11 episodes were then repeated between 5 November 1962 and 27 July 1963. For more than three years, Garry Halliday was a fixture in the schedule but it was then largely eclipsed by the series of serials that replaced it in the same Saturday teatime slot: Doctor Who.

While I was researching the life of David Whitaker - who worked on two Garry Halliday serials before becoming first story editor of Doctor Who - I read some contradictory stuff about the earlier series. Despite what you may read elsewhere, it was not adapted from books by Justin Blake; instead, the five books published 1960-65 were novelisations of broadcast TV serials. Nor did the TV series comprise a single 'trailer' episode and then two serials of 16 and 33 episodes respectively; there were seven serials of either six or seven episodes, and then an eighth series of six one-off episodes.

Such misconceptions are common when discussing old TV that no longer exists (only one episode of Garry Halliday survives in the archive), based on decades-old memories. The novelisation is a record of what has been lost, its six chapters providing a useful precis of the six broadcast episodes, with details of plot, pace and tone, and even descriptions of some of the sets. It can also help correct other misconceptions.

For example, the villain of the series is known as The Voice because even his own hench-people never see him in person. Some sources say that in the first serial The Voice disguised himself by shining a powerful light in the faces of those who report to him. The novelisation makes clear he works from an office with a two-way mirror and his minions are only admitted to the so-called Mirror Room. It may be that the light shone in people's faces is from a later serial, or it may be that what a viewer remembers is the way the Mirror Room scenes were shot, with close-ups of anxious hench-people.

What's more, Halliday is here a pilot for the British Overseas Airways - surely a little too close to the real-life British Overseas Airways Corporation (1939-74). It's only after this first adventure that he sets up his own airline, Halliday Charter Company.

So, the plot. On several flights back from Amsterdam, keen-eyed Halliday (Terence Longdon) spots an unexpected sight: what look like weather balloons but smaller. Halliday's co-pilot Bill Dodds (Terence Alexander, later Charlie Hungerford in Bergerac) - who narrates the novelisation - and stewardess Jean Wills (credited in Radio Times as Ann Gudrun, but better known as Gudrun Ure aka Supergran) fail to spot the balloons, and the authorities don't believe him either.

When Dodds tells a friend in the pub about this, they are overheard by a trainee steward called George Bassett (Geoffrey Hibbert), who then reports this conversation to The Voice. It turns out that Halliday has stumbled on to a diamond-smuggling operation. On his next flight, Halliday diverts course so that Dodds and Wills finally see a balloon but Bassett convinces them not to report this without better evidence; they agree to bring a cine camera with them on their next flight.

But as that flight takes off, Bassett has planted a bomb among the luggage...

In the second episode / chapter, Halliday learns of the bomb and disposes of it in the nick of time. In Amsterdam, he and his friends then investigate where the balloons have been launched from. They deduce it must be somewhere near the coast and drive around asking local people what they might have seen. This leads them to a windmill, where they are apprehended by two gunmen...

And so it goes on, Halliday surviving a series of scrapes. The obvious comparison is to the adventures of Biggles, though it reminded me a lot of John Buchan's Hannay stories. The diamond-smuggling plot may owe something to James Bond - the first Bond film wasn't out until 1962, but the novel Diamonds are Forever was published in 1956 and Ian Fleming's non-fiction book The Diamond Smugglers the following year. To expose the villains, Bond pretends to be a diamond-smuggler called Peter Franks; Halliday also pretends to be a diamond smuggler, but is really working on behalf of police inspector Franks. (The film version of Diamonds are Forever (1971) features stuff set in Amsterdam but the original novel does not.)

Just as with the adventures of Bond and Hannay, some elements mentioned in passing are a shock to the modern reader. The most glaring example is the racist joke when Dodds and his friends are in the cockpit scanning the air for balloons,

"and looking like a lot of daft coons watching a whole in the road or something" (pp. 20-21)

This comes from Dodds, who is a otherwise presented as a well-meaning bungler - we're told on the first page that his nickname is "Hopeless". He's largely there for comic relief; there's a fun sequence when he tries to pretend that the fugitive Halliday is not hiding in his house, and a more suspenseful bit towards the end of the story when, not privy to what's really going on and only trying to help, he leads the police to the wrong house, leaving Halliday in a fix with the enemy. In fact, there are some very effective moments of suspense and some genuine threat, such as the prospect of a whole plane-load of innocent people being murdered just to cover The Voice's tracks. I can see why the series hooked viewers.

The cover of the book may also tell us something about the popular appeal of the series. The artwork is by Lee Kenyon, based - we're told in the inside flap - on photographs supplied by the BBC. The top half of the cover is dominated by a close-up portrait of Elwyn Brook-Jones as The Voice, moodily lit and photo-realistic. Beneath him, in medium shot, is a more comic-strip portrayal of Halliday and Dodds in the cockpit, neither a particularly good likeness of the actors and Dodds looking off to one side at two balloons in the sky. The emphasis is surely on the villain, suggesting that he was the chief appeal.

I'm also struck by how little Jean Wills has to do, for all she insists on not being left out of things. She may have had more dialogue in the TV version but says very little in the book, and the only other female character is the unseen airport announcer. We can compare that to the first year of Doctor Who where Susan Foreman and Barbara Wright have so much to say and do, alongside a number of notable female guest characters.

It's also odd to read a story made for children that includes a visit to the pub and people smoking, or that includes the discomforts of a strip search. Oddest of all given that this is narrated by a co-pilot is the lack of any details about flying a plane, what's involved in navigation or changing course, or even the protocols of communication with the ground. The nearest we get is on page 68 when Halliday spells his name out in a joke-version of the NATO phonetic alphabet.

"Garry said: 'H for Holland. A for Amsterdam. L for Latitude. Another L for Longitude. I for Interesting. D for Diamonds. A for Altitude. Y for Yours Truly.'"

But while Dodds tells us a little about his own past - service in the RAF, where he was teased for being "Hopeless" - we get very little sense of Garry Halliday as a person, beyond his dogged determination and usefulness in a fight. Perhaps most revealing is when Dodds lists the contents of Halliday's overnight bag: 

"Pyjamas, a couple of handkerchiefs, spare socks, a tie, slippers, a flashy silk dressing-gown one of his girls gave him for Christmas, a Penguin book by Raymond Chandler and another by Jane Austen, sponge-bag with toothpaste, toothbrush, razor and shaving soap." (p. 90)

This determined adventure hero reads Austen but doesn't pack a change of underpants. And does "one of his girls" mean he's a womaniser or a dad? We're not told - because the series entitled Garry Halliday isn't really about him.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Titanium Noir, by Nick Harkaway

The idea of mashing up detective fiction and sci-fi isn't new. Isaac Asimov did it in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun in the 1950s (the latter of which I reread last month). As a kid, I was a big fan of Robo-Hunter in 2000AD, in which hero Sam Slade is a space-travelling version of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade.

As I've argued before, I think science-fiction and the detective story share a lot in common anyway, not least in the way we read them. We follow a plot but we're also looking for clues - in the detective story to work out whodunnit, in sci-fi to understand how this world operates differently from our own. We also read (and write) such stories with a knowledge of what's gone before in the genre, so judge each new work on its ability to follow conventions while both avoiding cliche and adding something new.

Titanium Noir is much closer to a Dashiell Hammett style thriller, with narrator Cal Sounder a world weary, wise-cracking gumshoe acting as a buffer between the police and super-rich elite called "Titans" in a gritty near-future. When one of the Titans is found dead, apparently having shot himself, Cal can look into things on a softer, less formal basis than the police, but also without the protection that goes with carrying a badge.

What makes this world different from our own is that the super-rich can afford injections of Titanium 7. As we're told early on,

"It's a rejuvenation treatment given by infusion. It turns the body's clack back to pre-puberty, then runs you through it at speed. It's also used to stimulate regeneration of severely damaged organs and limbs. It really does make you young again, but since it starts with an adult body, it also makes you bigger, hence the name [Titans]. Oh, and it's so expensive almost no one has it. Strictly for the speciation rich." (pp. 10-11)

There's obviously something in this akin to IVF which also jump-starts the body like putting it through puberty again. As with IVF, the result is painful and takes months to recover from. But Titans then live extremely long lives.

There's a stark division between the Titans who've received T7 and the mass of ordinary, little people who haven't. We see the impact of this on one particular relationship where one party is a Titan. But there's more nuance here than a simple divide between haves and have-nots. Over decades, some Titans have had more than one infusion - each one making them bigger, stranger, something else. There are gradations of Titan, separate from one another, and also families and attachments and conflicts between different groups.

Newly created Titans are also strong and horny, so specialist establishments cater for titanic sex, while the media revels in gossip (and recordings of) the ins and outs of who is doing what to who. Many ordinary people are keen to get in on the action, and to modify themselves to look more like Titans while unable to afford T7. From this one medical intervention has developed a whole culture.

This all makes for a richly drawn environment in which the plot neatly twists and turns. The novel rattles along, zigging and zagging with everyone under suspicion - even the narrator, whose loyalties we're not always sure of. The final reveal of the killer hinges on something we've been told early on - a nicely played clue that seems obvious in retrospect but took this reader by surprise. And it's all wrapped up in 236 pages - a quick, exciting and satisfying read.

Dashiell Hammett used Sam Spade in several stories, and also created other heroes who featured in multiple adventures (ie the Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and secret agent X-9). It would be fun to see Cal Sounder in further adventures, exploring more of this world - and Sounder's changed position within it given what happens in this book. But that will have to wait, as first Nick Harkaway is writing a George Smiley novel.

See also:

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Vworp Vworp! #6

The latest issue of ginormous Doctor Who fanzine Vworp Vworp! is now available, with 180 glossy pages devoted to the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, plus a DVD with added wonders.

My piece, "David the Goliath" (pp. 23-25) is on the thesis that without David Whitaker as story editor, Doctor Who would never have survived its first year. I endeavoured to be objective in my biography; here, I was asked to let rip.

The DVD includes an animated version of "A Meeting on the Common", the first chapter of David's 1964 novelisation Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, itself adapted from the TV serial that comprises Doctor Who episodes 5-11. The animation, effectively a new opening for all of Doctor Who, is directed and animated by Mel Meanley, adapted by Ian Winterton and stars Stephen Noonan as the Doctor, Adam Grayson as Ian, Helen Stirling-Lane as Barbara and Kerry Ely as Susan. Here's the trailer:

In my book, I discuss why this meeting takes place on Barnes Common and the elements of David Whitaker's real life that fed into it. In fact, the new animation is not the first dramatised version of this material, as I learned from The John Nathan-Turner Production Diary 1979-1990 by Richard Molesworth (Telos, 2022). Richard was then kind enough to let me have sight of the original paperwork.

In the summer of 1981, Philip Lewis - a BBC employee based in Room 4, 16 LS at Broadcasting House in London - wrote to Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner about a script he (Lewis) had written for 'Episode 1' of Doctor Who and the Daleks, adapting the early chapters of David Whitaker's novelisation as an audio play. Lewis wanted the producer's permission to allow the Studio Amateur Dramatic Group (SADG) of the BBC Club to record this, on the proviso that it would be made by and played for club members only, and was not intended for broadcast. The idea was to use it as an exercise in adapting a novel for radio. Lewis assured the producer that the Daleks didn't feature - i.e. the episode concluded before they made their first appearance.

Replying on 4 June, Nathan Turner agreed in principle that this project could go ahead but wanted to check with Martin Hussey, merchandising assistant at BBC Enterprises, whether the project needed the blessing of Roger Hancock, agent of Dalek creator Terry Nation. The producer forwarded Hussey the script the following day; a copy of his covering memo survives. There's no record of a reply and the script doesn't seem to have been returned, so is not included in the Nathan Turner archive.

Staff at the BBC's Written Archive Centre were unable to locate a copy of the script or any further details about this production. No recording, cast list or other paperwork is known to survive. I've also drawn a blank in trying to trace Philip Lewis; he's surely not the man of the same name who was a long-serving TV producer for BBC Midlands and created Pot Black.

But if SADG recorded a version of the script by Lewis, it may well have been technically accomplished. SADG helped BBC staff learn key skills in production. For example, Bob Wood was a senior clerk working in the current recordings retention unit at Broadcasting House in the 1960s, but joined this (and other) groups:

"At SADG, I learnt to be a radio studio manager and producer, eventually becoming their technical training officer and winning a technical trophy ... In 1970, after successfully completing the POA/SM training course, I left London and moved to Glasgow as a radio studio manager at BBC Scotland." (Bob Wood, "BBC hostels & the summer of love", Prospero issue 6 (December 2018), p. 8.


I’ve been in touch with Philip Lewis, who now works as a voice artist with credits including a radio announcer on Emmerdale. You can find out more (and employ him!) via his website

So, what about his adaptation of Doctor Who and the Daleks?

“As far as I know, it never got recorded,” Philip tells me. “At least not with my involvement. And I don’t have a copy of the script. In the intervening years I’ve moved house a number of times.”

But why adapt this particular Doctor Who novelisation, which was then 17 years-old? “The answer to that lies in the letter I wrote to the then producer – basically it was an exercise in adapting a book for radio. I seem to remember around that time I did several partial adaptations of other books and Doctor Who was just one of them.

“And no, I’m not the Philip Lewis who produced Pot Black, although I did meet him once.”

Thanks to Philip, and also to Richard Bignell.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Connections with James Burke

I've really enjoyed this new six-part series on Curiosity Steam, with my hero James Burke returning to the subject of the unexpected history of change. There are two big differences between this and the 1978 series Connections that Burke made for the BBC, which I blogged about a decade ago. (Since then, it's been released on DVD by Simply Media in 2017 and is, er, currently all on YouTube).

First, that original series had - like lots of the BBC's science documentaries then and now - a lot of Burke out in the field, striding through picturesque locations to illustrate his thesis. Here, things are on a smaller, less expensive scale with the older Burke on a virtual set, his arguments illustrated by what looks like stock footage and bits of CGI swirling around him. At some points they use CGI to animate him - he even dances (!) - and there are also some props, such as when he dons the Macktinosh waterproof coat he's telling us about. But the effect of all this is to underline that these are basically lectures. It's all more TED talk than Brian Cox out on a mountain pointing at stars.

Nowhere is this more starkly evident than in Episode 5, where Burke discusses the usefulness of the vacuum flask. He makes his case then turns and points behind him, as in the screenshot above. We get a CGI animation of a rocket blasting off - a fun gag and call-back. In the original, out on location and perfectly timed to the launch of the Titan-Centaur rocket carrying Voyager 2 in space, it creates an iconic bit of TV:

(Burke's old programmes are full of extraordinary, ballsy stuff like this. He explains gravity while sat on a roller-coaster, and hands the Apollo astronauts a plastic bag they all recognise and asks them to explain how this was used as a toilet in space.)

Secondly, each episode in the new Connections begins with a change that hasn't happened yet: a prediction of the near future. The old BBC series used connections to explain how we got to be where we are; this new series is about where we're going.

To give a sense of the format, Episode 1, Seeing the Future, begins with Burke talking about the potential of quantum computing to crunch such vast sets of data that it will be able to predict the future to a high degree of accuracy. We then duck back in time to 1814 and the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's toothpick. Animation in a style slightly reminiscent of Monty Python shows Napoleon escaping from Elba.

An example of the animation from
Connections with James Burke

The fun is in seeing how Burke will get from this toothpick to quantum computing in a series of logical steps. Those steps are often surprising because of unintended consequences of a given change or new invention. Sometimes it's a less direct connection. For example, Napoleon's toothpick was supplied by George Bullock, and Bullock's brother William didn't just ship stuff out from the UK but also brought stuff home, organising exhibitions of exotic stuff in "living museums". To ship such stuff from far-off locales, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward perfected the "Wardian case", which meant plants survived long journeys. That, in turn, meant Robert Fortune could smuggle tea plants out of China and help set-up tea plantations in India, with a profound impact on trade.

We're then on to the ships used to carry these good quickly - the clippers using sail and then the iron ships powered by steam. Then we're onto the same ships carrying palm oil, and it's use in soap, and the way that was packaged and branded... On and on it goes, a hop-scotch through time, with regular recaps of the connections so far.

Episode 2, The End of Scarcity, predicts the universal replicator by following the chain from Louis XIV's wig.

Episode 3, In the Net, predicts humans merging with the internet and Episode 4, None of This is Real, predicts avatars that are indistinguishable from humans, with AI as the gatekeeper to knowledge - the latter reached by following a chain from shipworm.

Episode 5, Designer Genes, gets to the titular editing of who we are from coffee beans in Leipzig, and the final episode, Limitless Energy, predicts energy autonomy based on perovskite solar cells leading to a post-scarcity society with no need for climate change or war - all from the starting point of a potato.

Burke is an engaging and often funny speaker, with just the right tone of irreverence for these leaps of imagination. For example:

"In 1852, one of [William Bird] Herapath's students notices, as you would, that if you add iodine to dog's urine, if the dog has already been fed quinine - okay, okay, but this is what geeks do - then you get needle like crystals." (None of This is Real)

These crystals polarise glass, leading to the invention of both polarised glasses and the polaroid camera.

But there's plenty of serious stuff behind these arguments. A key theme is the way science can open up opportunities and provide benefits for all. In discussing the steps that lead to designer genes, he notes that two brilliant women responsible for key connections along the way, both died while young. Given that the end point is about improving health, he asks what Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin might have gone on to contribute if they'd lived longer.

That, I think, is another key difference from the original series, which I felt assumed a male viewer, Burke speaking to his peers. This is all much more inclusive and I don't think Burke is now talking to his own generation. Instead, he addresses those who will follow, encouraging them to take part in the bright future he sees ahead. That's what really strikes me about this series: it's optimism for where we go next. 

See also:

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Over a series of long drives and shorter washings-up, I've worked my way through this 35+ hour reading of Our Mutual Friend, the novel by Charles Dickens first published in 1864-65, and the last novel he completed. The audiobook version was brilliantly read by David Troughton.

Lizzie Hexam is scared of the Thames but dutifully joins her father in his boat to scour the water for valuable jetsam. One night her father finds the body of a dead young man, identified as John Harmon. Harmon is the heir to a fortune, conditional on his marrying a Miss Bella Wilfer - who he has never met. With Harmon dead, the fortune passes to an eccentric but kindly couple, the Boffins. And they feel they ought to do something by Miss Wilfer, so take her in as their own. But Bella, the Boffins and lots of people around them are affected by this new-found wealth, and not always for the better. The Boffins have also taken on a secretary, John Rokesmith, who has a mysterious past...

I first read this novel in 1998 having loved the BBC TV adaptation starring Keeley Hawes as Lizzie Hexam and Paul McGann as the aesthete Eugene Wrayburn who falls for her, Anna Friel as Bella Wilfer and Steven Mackintosh as John Rokesmith. The thing that struck me then was the book's attention to water - the river Thames, the locks and canals, the connections afforded by its flow. 

In part, I think that chimed with me because of other depictions of the Thames from the same period - namely by the Impressionists, which I studied at A-level. Here's "The Thames below Westminster" by Claude Monet, painted 1870-71, and now in the collection of the National Gallery. I had this sense of Dickens producing a similarly vivid, dashed-off impression of the river in prose.

Except that's not what he did at all, as I learned in 2015 from "Charles Dickens and Science", a talk given at Gresham College by Lord Hunt of Chesterton, for which the video and full transcript are still available. It turns out that engineer John Scott Russell, who identified in his designs for ships that waves have an associated force, worked for Dickens as the railways editor at the Daily News and provided the technical detail in Our Mutual Friend, where the behaviour of the water of the Thames articulates the science of fluid dynamics decades ahead of its time. 

Rereading the novel now, what struck me most was the number of subterfuges involved. Rokesmith and the Boffins deceive Miss Wilfer. Though they claim this is for her best interests, and things all work out in the end, I can't imagine anyone would really accept such deception so readily. Yet Miss Wilfer is also involved in deception: she gets married without telling her busy-body mother and sister, while her father has to pretend he wasn't at the ceremony. 

These are all good people lying for good reasons but there are deceptive villains, too. The Lammies marry thinking that one another is rich;  when they realise they have no money between them, they must continue to hide the truth from everyone else. Roger Riderhood and Bradley Headstone both attempt to leave false trails to incriminate others. Then there are characters who deceive themselves: Headstone over Lizzie's affections, Silas Webb over his rights to the Boffins' fortune.

At the heart of all this is the difference between the 'mask' we present to other people and society as a whole, and the importance of being true to ourselves and our loved ones. And yet that truth is not the same thing as honesty. A lie is okay, even virtuous, when it is meant to aid someone else. The morality here isn't simple black and white, one thing or the other. The dynamics are more fluid.

See also: 

Saturday, December 16, 2023

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is called before the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs in Moscow. He's identified as the author of Where Is It Now?, a poem published in 1913 and considered by some to be a call to action after the failed revolt of 1905. But despite these credentials, the count is also an aristocrat, was out of the country during the revolutions of 1917 and is deemed to have "succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class" (p. 5). He is placed under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol and remains there for years...

But he does more than just survive; he flourishes.

This is an extraordinary, bewitching novel - a man out of his time in a fast-changing new order, his old-world values at odds with the officiousness of modernity. Rostov is a charming, suave protagonist, able to assist and advise a broad range of those he encounters in the hotel, building up friendships and even a family. It's a story of one man against the odds like so much thrilling spy fiction - and there's a feeling of le Carre throughout, which I mean as high compliment. (Rostov likens himself more to Sam Spade in the film version of The Maltese Falcon). 

Yet what really makes this work is that it's often so playful and fun. The reader is just another in the line to fall for Rostov's charm. And then, in the last section, there's a direct threat to Rostov and someone he holds very dear, and it all gets much more suspenseful, to the very last page.

A Gentleman in Moscow was the last novel my late father finished reading - while in hospital for almost the last time - and the last book he recommended to me. Reading it has been a little like a conversation with him, not least because I can see why he'd have liked it so much. There's something of my dad in Rostov, and his wit and worldview. For all this novel enthralled me, it's taken a while to finish, in part because I've been busy on other things. But now, on completing it, I realise I lingered - a book, and connection, I didn't want to put down.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Happy Times and Places - An Unearthly Child

To mark 60 years of Doctor Who, Toby Hadoke has devoted a special five-part instalment of his Happy Times and Places podcast to the very first episode, An Unearthly Child. I'm in part four.

Toby asked a bunch of us to watch the episode then nominate our five favourite things about it, which he then responds to. I won't spoil who else is involved but there are some brilliant insights, underlining my point that there's always being something new to be discovered.

Also by me on this blog:

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Power of 3 podcast #172

I chatted to Kenny Smith for the latest episode of the Power of 3 podcast. As well as asking me about my new book David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, Kenny and his co-hosts Dave, John and Steevie discuss their favourite Doctor Who stories written by David.

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Sky at Night: The Art of Stargazing by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock

I've just received my copies of The Sky at Night: The Art of Stargazing, a new guide by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock to the 88 constellations of stars. It's a lovely book, each constellation illustrated by Tom Matuszewski and with diagrams by Greg Stevenson. What a fun and informative thing to work on.

Blurb as follows:

"What is the story behind the stars? Many of us gaze up into space and marvel at the Milky Way, but do you know what you're really looking at?

The Art of Stargazing is the ultimate insider's guide to the night sky in which award-winning space scientist and The Sky at Night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock shares her expertise and unique insights into the marvellous world of stars. Take a tour of the 88 constellations and explore the science, history, culture and romanticism behind these celestial bodies.

In this must-have handbook for budding stargazers - and anyone looking for a little more wonder in their lives - Maggie will help you to identify stars and teach you the basics of naked-eye observation, offering fascinating facts plus advice on kit, 'dark sky' locations and much more. Also included are beautiful illustrations to accompany each constellation and an easy-to-read sky map. With Maggie by your side, the night sky will truly come alive."

My credit in the indicia

It's the fifth book published in the past few months that I've written or worked on - the last year or so has been extremely busy, jumping from project to project. Bit knackered now.

Friday, November 24, 2023

The Daleks in Colour and Kennedy's "Survivors"

Watching the glorious The Daleks in Colour last night, I was especially struck by the bleakness of the story and world, a tale of nuclear holocaust made in an age when that was a stark possibility. As my chum Toby Hadoke pointed out to me a while ago, the second episode of the original serial, “The Survivors” (in which we first see the Daleks), was recorded on the evening of 22 November 1963, just hours after the cast and crew learned of the assassination of President John F Kennedy and the whole world seemed poised on a knife-edge.

This week, a post by Letters of Note started off a chain of thoughts. Following Kennedy's death, his widow Jacqueline wrote to Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union:

“I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches - 'In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.'”

Khrushchev seems to have been credited for this evocative phrase in the 20 July 1963 issue of Pravda (I've not been able to check this but it says so here). Whatever the case, President Kennedy quickly picked up on the phrase, quoting it on 26 July in his radio and television address to the US people on the nuclear test ban treaty - a transcript and recording can be found on the website of the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

“A war today or tomorrow, if it led to nuclear war, would not be like any war in history. A full-scale nuclear exchange, lasting less than 60 minutes, with the weapons now in existence, could wipe out more than 300 million Americans, Europeans and Russians, as well as untold numbers elsewhere. And the survivors, as Chairman Khrushchev warned the Communist Chinese, 'the survivors would envy the dead.' For they would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors.”

These words were very widely reported, such as in the Daily Telegraph the following day (it's a front-page story, but the line about survivors is on p. 16 where the news story continues). That was on Saturday, 27 July 1963 and, despite what Kennedy said, I think people could very well imagine the horrors. Surely it can't be a coincidence that this was probably also the weekend over which Terry Nation wrote his 26-page storyline for a Doctor Who serial at that point entitled "The Survivors".

The storyline does not include a date but we can deduce when Nation wrote it from two surviving documents in the BBC's Written Archives Centre. On 30 July, BBC Head of Serials Donald Wilson produced notes for a preliminary meeting about the promotion of Doctor Who and listed the first three serials then currently planned: the caveman adventure The Tribe of Gum aka An Unearthly Child, the ultimately unmade The Robots and the story that became Marco Polo

The following day, story editor David Whitaker produced one-paragraph synopses of these three stories - plus a newly commissioned fourth one: Nation's serial was now under the title “The Mutants.” So: Nation wrote the storyline over the weekend, surely influenced by the leading news story and Kennedy's evocative phrase, then met with Whitaker on the Monday or Tuesday and was commissioned for the story.

One more thing, which I mentioned yesterday in my interview with BBC News (and tweeted back in July). Nation’s thrilling, 26-page storyline, on the basis on which scripts were commissioned, used the words “execution”, “elimination” and “extinction”. Whitaker summarised the plot in one paragraph for his colleagues, and used a word Nation had not: “exterminated”. 

Source: Asa Briggs, Competition, p. 418. My book David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television is out now.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Three Counties Radio and Doctor Who @60

The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast 60 years ago today and there's a whole load of stuff on TV, radio and online to mark the occasion.

This morning, I joined Andy Collins on BBC Three Counties radio to talk about David Whitaker, first story editor of Doctor Who, and how his childhood in places such as Knebworth, Cheshunt and Nasty (as well as living in London) fed into those early adventures - and explains why the Daleks invaded Bedford of all places. You can listen here:

ETA: Danny Fullbrook also interviewed me for the BBC News website about David Whitaker's connection to the area - see Doctor Who: Bedford writer's childhood influenced the Daleks.

The second part of my contribution to the Something Who podcast is also now live. Having tackled 1965 story The Rescue (written by David Whitaker) in part one, me, Richard, Giles and Paul get to grips with 2010's The Eleventh Hour.

More of me rabbiting on about Doctor Who here:

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Zero Room Audio - recording of David Whitaker book launch

John Ryan has posted an edited recording of our launch event for David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, hosted at the Portico Library in Manchester earlier this month. I was interviewed by Carol Ann Whitehead - and I think you can hear my jangling nerves.
Excitingly, this recording marks the return of 1980s audio fanzine Zero Room

Monday, November 20, 2023

Something Who #83: Dido Know, Don't Dido?

I joined Richard, Giles and Paul on the latest episode of the Something Who podcast for a deep-dive look at the 1965 Doctor Who story The Rescue by David Whitaker, and the 2010 episode The Eleventh Hour by Steven Moffat.

It's really interesting to compare what seem to be such disparate, unrelated stories and see the different production teams grappling with what's basically the same problem: how to restart Doctor Who with new regular characters and a tone of engaging, fun adventure.

It was also fun to apply the stuff I've learned researching my newly published biography of David Whitaker, almost like an end-of-term test.

Oh, there is a bit where I had to attempt some acting, a good leap out of my comfort zone. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Philip Hinchcliffe Years - The DNA of Doctor Who

A Kickstarter has been launched for the first in a new series new series of large-format books on the creative team behind Doctor Who. This first volume examines the years 1974-77, as overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe.

From Morbius to Krynoids, Eldrad to Wirrn, ROUNDEL PUBLISHING takes an in-depth look with unrivalled access to the architect of some of the most revered years of Doctor Who's history! 

Available in softback, hardback or deluxe hardback options including the option to receive signed copies, exclusive art prints and even the chance to get a personal message from Philip himself! 

The book is edited by Gary Russell and designed by Will Brooks, with essays on each one of the Doctor Who stories from the period and insights from Hinchcliffe.

I've written the essay on Planet of Evil (1975) and the way this adventure and the production team at the time more generally borrowed from classics of sci-fi. Other contributors include Louise Jameson, Graeme Burk, Hannah Cooper, Matt Dale, Hayden Gribble, Toby Hadoke, David J Howe, Robin Ince, Alex Kingdom, Emma Ko, Trey Korte, Aaron Lowe, Sophia Morphew, Kim Pfeifer-Adams, Mick Schubert, Kenny Smith, Matthew Sweet, Matthew Toffolo and Ian Winterton. 

The Kickstarter runs until 30 November. See the site for loads more details - and to bung us some cash.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

Agoraphobic detective Elijah Baley is sent to the wide open spaces of the planet Solaria to investigate a murder. This is a planet where people don't mix in person, only by remote "tridimensional" video link (think Zoom but in 3D), and there's no sign of a murder weapon. It's a classic locked-room mystery but it takes Baley's outsider's perspective to spot the obvious factor that everyone else overlooks...

It's been fascinating to reread this classic sci-fi murder mystery first published in 1958, which I originally read in my teens. I don't think then that I knew of its obvious influence on the 1977 Doctor Who story The Robots of Death. And I hadn't made the connection before to Baley's frequent exclamation "Jehosophat" and the 1983 Doctor Who story The Five Doctors. When, in that, the Third Doctor exclaims "Jehosophat", I'd thought it showed his intimate knowledge of the past - a reference to the fourth king of Judah in the Old Testament. But used in the same manner that Baley says it, it's a word from the future.

More extraordinary is how modern some of this novel seems. There's a lot on the psychological impact of not meeting in person but communicating remotely, with which we've all got first-hand experience thanks to lockdown. Asimov's view is that the technology enables a phenomenon that becomes self-enforcing: the less people interact in person, the more horrified they are by the prospect of doing so, leading to a whole culture of isolation. Baley, as visitor, becomes attuned to their horror at the very notion of physical contact. Just the suggestion of proximity, the thought of touch and breath and smell from other bodies, can lead to extreme reactions - in line with some recent conversations I've had with friends about how slow we've been to resocialise. 

Extending from this horror of contact, the Solarians struggle to say the word "children" because of what their existence implies; without quite spelling it out, there's an implicit aversion to sex. A key distinction is made on Solaria between "viewing" (remotely) and "seeing" (in person). On page 51, murder suspect Gladia Delmarre steps out of the shower in front of a shocked Baley and thinks nothing of it herself because he's not physically present. On page 118, Baley is quick to stop another woman, Klorissa Cantoro, from undressing in front of him. This stuff, I think, is titillation for the adolescent, male and straight audience assumed to be reading, but any reading is overshadowed by the author's own dealings with women.
"Asimov, who described himself as a feminist, casually groped female fans for years." Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee, p. 12.
The women here are certainly objectified. At no point is Baley at risk of seeing male Solarians naked as it would not have the same effect. Also, Solarians recoil at the duty to marry and have children, but there's no suggestion that some of them might do so because they are anything other than heteronormative and sexual. For all the outlandish rules of this society on another world, it takes for granted various social norms that seem rather parochial now.

I'm also stuck by what feels incongruous for a futuristic story: Baley smokes a pipe. Perhaps that's in line with something he says on page 183: "having eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, is the truth." But for all he might be moulded in the form of 19th century detective Sherlock Holmes, only transposed to the future, The Naked Sun is bound up in anxieties of its time.

We're told, for example, that the imposition of marriage and procreation keeps the population stable, and that the murdered man is a fetologist, working to screen and improve the genetic stock on explicitly eugenicist lines. 
"And no one would believe me capable of so seriously psychotic an act as murder. Not with my gene make-up. So don't waste accusations on me." (pp. 126-7)
That idea of purity among the minority elite on Solaria plays against the slave-class majority: we're told (for example, on p. 191) that robots outnumber humans 10,000 to one. The analogy in the book is to the helots, the Ancient Greek people subjugated by the Spartans. But there's surely a more contemporary resonance in what's being described here, to civil rights in the US and anticolonialism abroad. More than proximity, there's a greater terror to this elite - that this majority might become conscious of this gross imbalance of power.
"But what if some human threatened to teach the robots how to harm humans; to make them, in other words, capable of revolting?" (pp. 190-1)
An age ago, when I did my master's degree in science-fiction at the University of Reading, one tutor suggested a good way to grasp the workings of any given utopia: look at how children are raised in it. One thing that's striking now is that Baley (and perhaps Asimov, too) takes for granted the old saying, "spare the rod, spoil the child": it's seen as fundamentally problematic that robots, programmed to never harm humans, won't inflict "discipline" on the children in their care. The implication is that such discipline is physical, i.e. beating the child. 

Just as troubling, we see that children on Solaria instinctively play together in person and need touch and affection (the latter supplied by robots), but are gradually taught to isolate themselves from one another. They are taught to recoil from one another - and to depersonalise others. On page 134, we learn one small boy views Baley as an inferior kind of human because he is from Earth, and therefore someone who, like robots, can be the target of arrows.

This idea of how people can come to be seen is central to a book about exposure under the titular naked sun. Given the careful distinction between "viewing" and "seeing", it's notable that Baley's partner R. Daneel Olivaw is not recognised for what he really is. The Solarians assume (and at one point someone's life depends on thinking) that he is human, when he is a robot. The Solarian robots do not have names and each has a specific function. Yet for all they are treated like appliances, they have feelings - upset if a human does their jobs, or if a human is hurt. Olivaw is a more complicated case: the Solarians unwittingly treat him as a person - but so does Baley, for all he knows the truth. He might be a bit dismissive of and irritated by this robot, but no more so than he is with other humans. Olivaw has some agency but The Robots of Death takes the logical step not taken here: that robots are an oppressed people deserving liberation.

(One day, I'll return to what was meant to be a lockdown project of watching particular episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have things to say about Data's evident personhood and the repeated efforts by his own employers to deny it.)

Other things are striking about The Naked Sun. The women characters are rather two-dimensional (for all we view them in 3D), Baley is often cross and difficult for no particular reason, and there's no great concern at the end that his actions lead to someone's death. For all it's a murder mystery in the classic style, with various different suspects all (viewed) together at the end as the detective puts his case, I didn't feel we were encouraged to play along in making sense of the evidence and guessing whodunnit.

Yet most striking is Baley's conclusion. He's a maverick loner on an alien world where he doesn't fit in. When he returns to Earth at the end, the suggestion is that his experience means he no longer fits in at home. A lot of classic science-fiction I've read is about maverick individuals, their will pitted against the wider, impersonal system. There's something of that here: in a final twist, Baley makes a decision not to punish one guilty party and to have framed someone connected to but not actually guilty of the murder. 

But that's not what Baley concludes here. He tells his superiors that the people of Solaria have given up,
"something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything. [They've given up] The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals." (p. 195)

The analogy is to the scientific community, where peer review can point out faults and lead to better progress being made. But I'm struck by this rejection of the individual in favour of the collective. It's surely a rejection of elites living in seclusion and luxury in favour of something more equitable - even socialist.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine #597

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is packed with stuff about the forthcoming TV specials that begin two weeks today, and all the other goodies being released as part of the 60th anniversary - including the more than 600 episodes of 20th century Doctor Who added to iPlayer and the new Tales from the TARDIS series.

I've got one thing in this issue: the latest Sufficient Data infographic takes us right back to the beginning of Doctor Who, with everything we know takes place in the Doctor's life before the first TV episode.

But there's also handsome adverts for my two new books, David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television and Whotopia - The Ultimate Guide to the Whoniverse. In fact, I only realise now, with everything put out on iPlayer, that our new book is the perfect guide to all these episodes, providing loads of ways into it. How clever, and they didn't tell us!

The Doctor Who Magazine website also has a competition to win a copy of Whotopia, open until 8 December. Good luck!

Thursday, November 09, 2023

David Whitaker seen on television

In August 1964, Doctor Who's first story editor, David Whitaker, wrote up a CV for his new agent, Beryl Vertue, ahead of leaving his staff job at the BBC to go freelance. That CV is a key source in piecing together David's wide-ranging career. Before becoming a writer, David had been a professional actor and his CV refers to acting work in both radio and TV - but without saying what this involved.

We know David worked for BBC Radio in Belfast while working on stage at the New Theatre at Bangor, 1954-55, but not the productions or roles. In October 1955, he was one of four unnamed sailors in The Voyage of Magellan produced by Rayner Heppenstall.

As per the Radio Times listing, this play was repeated. That may explain why a recording of it survives - made for this repeat and retained in case of further broadcast. As a result, this is one of two known records of David's voice, and although he's part of the ensemble rather than playing a named character, we can identify him in the crowd thanks to the other recording we have of him. I'll come to that in a moment.

Sadly, the BBC's Written Archives Centre (WAC) in Caversham does not hold paperwork relating to The Voyage of Magellan to give us more information, such as whether it was first broadcast live or recorded in advance. Details of this and any other roles David might have had on radio are not included in the "radio contributions" files for David held by WAC, which instead cover writing work he did for television outside his staff job.

As for the TV acting work he did before 1964, no details are known to survive - though I take an educated guess in my biography, David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure in Television. But once he'd left his staff job at the BBC, David made a number of other appearances on TV...

Alys and Alan Hayes alerted me to the fact that, on 30 June 1967, David and his wife June Barry were among the celebrities gathered for the 1,000th episode of BBC Two's arts discussion programme Late Night Line-Up. For this, guests from previous episodes (including David Attenborough, Jonathan Miller, Robert Morley, Nyrie Dawn Porter and Ned Sherin) were entertained by comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, assisted by a pre-Monty Python Terry Jones. This programme survives in the BBC archive. Here are two screenshots:

Terry Jones (standing) serves Peter Cook and (his back to us) Dudley Moore, while John Hopkins (with beard) looks on, David Whitaker and June Barry beside him.

Peter Cook standing over Dudley Moore, while John Hopkins, David Whitaker and June Barry watch.

The bearded man sat next to David is the playwright John Hopkins, with whom David worked and corresponded in the BBC script department while they were both on staff there. Hopkins wrote the screenplay for the James Bond film Thunderball (1965), which originally included a reference to Daleks:

BOND (grunts) The Daleks have taken over! 

Here's Hopkins again later the same year that he sat next to David, having just won an award for his script for Talking to a Stranger (available on YouTube), starring Judi Dench - seen second from the left:

TV Awards, 17 November 1967
Eric Portman, Judi Dench, Sydney Newman, Donald Wilson, Basil Coleman, John Hopkins

In the middle of the picture are (in glasses) Sydney Newman, leaving his job as BBC Head of Drama after five years, and beside him tall Donald Wilson, Newman's former head of serials. These two men created Doctor Who and I'm not aware of any other photograph of them together.

Back to David. On 5 March 1969, he was one of the hosts of the Writers' Guild awards held at the Dorchester Hotel in London. The moment that he announced the plaque for 'Best British Light Entertainment Script' awarded to the writing team behind Marty [Feldman] was captured on film and opens the surviving documentary One Pair Of Eyes: No, But Seriously, first broadcast on 7 June. It's the second surviving example of David's voice and you can currently view this on YouTube, but also here is a screenshot:

David Whitaker and Marius Goring
Writers' Guild Awards, 5 March 1969

Beside David is Marius Goring, the actor who'd played a villain in David's TV serial The Evil of the Daleks (1967) and his film Subterfuge (1968, but not released until 1971).

In 1972, David had a cameo role in The Far Country, his own adaptation of the Nevil Shute novel, produced by Eric Tayler for ABC in Australia and first broadcast on 9 February that year. Sadly, David's appearance is not included in the surviving footage from the serial.

Two years later, David wrote another role for himself in the STW-9 series he originated, The Drifter. Again, sadly, this doesn't survive but David's role was covered in the local listings magazine:

'Photo News' from (Australian) TV Week, 4 May 1974

David kept this page from the listings magazine and was also sent the original photograph, plus another one showing him being made-up for this role.

Laurence Hodge, Norman MacLeod and David Whitaker in The Drifter (1974)

David Whitaker made-up for The Drifter (1974)

Although he lived for another six years, these are the latest dated photographs of David Whitaker.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Who's Views interview about David Whitaker

Here's a deep dive interview on YouTube with me about how David Whitaker's years of experience working on variety shows and sitcoms informed how he helped develop the format of Doctor Who. JT at Who's Views has a whole load of interviews and other fun stuff coming up through November.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

James Beck (Walker in Dad's Army) and David Whitaker

Here are two stills from the earliest known TV appearance by actor James Beck, later famous as spiv 'Joe Walker' in Dad's Army.

Ivor Salter, Ronnie Corbett and James Beck
in Crackerjack, BBC TV, 19 March 1958
Michael Darbyshire and James Beck
in Crackerjack, BBC TV, 19 March 1958

This role in Crackerjack is from three years before what's usually cited as Beck's first TV role - as 'Roach' in The Fifth Form at St Dominic's (1961). (Dave Homewood's exhaustive list of Beck's TV credits says Beck might also have been in episodes of I Made News and Fabian of the Yard in the 1950s.)

The Crackerjack sketch, 'Cops and Robbers', was written by its regular comic guest stars Ronnie Corbett and Michael Darbyshire. Darbyshire receives a visit from Beck's 'Police Inspector Bright', who warns him to be on the look out for a dangerous criminal called 'Kelly' (Ivor Salter). Corbett and Darbyshire are excited by the chance to play Sherlock Holmes and catch the crook. Mayhem ensues... 

Radio Times listing for 19 March 1958
with credit for 'David Whittaker' (sic)
Although this sketch was written by Corbett and Darbyshire, I think Beck probably got the part through his friend David Whitaker, who was credited in that week's Radio Times as writer of the rest of the episode. David will have written host Eamonn Andrews's links, the 'party' games played by the child contestants and so on.

Beck and Whitaker met as actors in repertory theatre in Paignton in the summer of 1955. Two years later, still in Paignton, Beck had a role as 'Arthur Leicester' in A Hand in Marriage, a play David wrote and co-directed. Immediately after this production, David began a full-time job in the Script Unit at the BBC, and quickly worked on a wide variety of shows, Crackerjack among them.

A little after this TV appearance, in October 1958, Beck began a long stint at the York Theatre Royal, where he made life-long friends with a number of other cast members, including Jean Alexander (later 'Hilda Ogden' in Coronation Street), Trevor Bannister (later 'Mr Lucas' in Are You Being Served?), June Barry (later 'Joanie Walker', daughter of Annie, in Coronation Street and also 'June Forsyte' in The Forsyte Saga) and Alethea Charlton (an amazing character actress who later played the cavewoman 'Hur' in the first Doctor Who serial).

That last piece of casting may again have come about through David Whitaker, who was story editor on the first year of Doctor Who. Alethea was also bridesmaid when June Barry married David in the summer of 1963, and James Beck gave away the bride. The gang of friends are all visible in the surviving film from the day, some of which is including in our documentary Looking for David included on the Doctor Who - The Collection: Season 2 box-set.

St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, 8 June 1963
Groom David Whitaker, bride June Barry, bridesmaid Alethea Charlton, ushers Trevor Bannister and  James Beck

According to June Barry, David was also at Beck's home on 31 July 1968 to watch the first episode of Dad's Army go out. More on all this in my book, David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, which is published this week.