Thursday, May 25, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine #591

I've a couple of things in the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine out today.

In "Location, Location, Location", assistant location manager Alex Moore tells me all about his job on the new series - which isn't all bins and car parks.

(I've been chatting to Alex anyway as his excellent article on the late director Frank Cox, published in the new issue of TARDIS (vol 7 no 5), has been very useful for my forthcoming book on The Edge of Destruction.)

I've also written the "Sufficient Data" infographic illustrated by Ben Morris looking at the winners of the readers' poll into best Fifth and Sixth Doctor stories.

And the back cover is a big ad for Daleks! Genesis of Terror which is out today. Rob Ritchie has produced the most amazing video trailer.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Trouble with Lichen, by John Wyndham

There's a masterpiece in blurbage on the back of this Penguin edition:

"It was Diana Brackley who put the milk out for the cat; who dropped a speck of lichen in it by mistake; who noticed how the lichen stopped the milk turning.

But it was Francis Saxover, the famous biochemist, who carried on from there; who developed Antigerone, the cure for ageing; who then tried to suppress a discovery which was certainly in the megaton range.

And so it was Diana Brackley who went to town with Antigerone in one of John Wyndham's gayest and most satirical forays into the fantastic.

'If even a tenth of science fiction were as good, we should be in clover' - Kingsley Amis in the Observer"

It's a remarkable feat, a big science-fiction idea about the way science can affect social change, drawing, I think from the impact of penicillin and of the Suffragette movement, and all conveyed here as light romcom. Brian Aldiss famously criticised Wyndham for writing "cosy catastrophe", but this is all-out fun. 

Antigerone slows the biological process, so those who take it do not age. The trouble of the title is that there's only enough of the lichen to make this wonder drug for at most 4,000 people. The result is lots of debate on the ethics of announcing the discovery, let alone deciding who might share its benefits. 

Diana is a brilliant character, a young, determined woman with a habit of shocking people by saying the wrong thing - or rather what she thinks. At eighteen, she's asked by a schoolteacher whether her parents are proud of her academic success. Diana responds immediately that her "Daddy's very pleased", but can't say the same for her mother.

"'She tries. She's really been awfully sweet about it,' said Diana. She fixed Miss Benbow with those eyes again. 'Why is that mothers still think it so much more respectable to be bedworthy than brainy?' she inquired. 'I mean, you'd expect it to be the other way round.'

Miss Benbow replies, carefully, that "comprehensible" might be a better word that "respectable", and suggests the possibility that, "when the daughter of a domestic-minded woman chooses to have a career she is criticising her mother by implication".

"'I hadn't looked at it that way before,' Diana admitted thoughtfully. 'You mean that, underneath, they are always hoping that their daughters will fail in their careers, and so prove that they, the mothers, I mean, were right all the time?'" (pp. 12-13)

Diana soon has a career as a brilliant scientist who also likes to look good, and sees no contradiction in using the cutting-edge science she's developed as a beauty treatment for other women. In fact, she sees how the cosmetic aspects of the new discovery can advance the feminist cause. It's not exactly what you expect from a male sci-fi writer of this vintage.

Several of the traits Diana exhibits align with what we'd now think of as autistic and it's refreshing to read a decades-old book that celebrates such diversity. They make her a better character and better person. Sadly, Saxover is less engaging and there's little to explain Diana's long-lasting attraction. His attitude to other women doesn't exactly do him any favours - over pages 25 and 26, he lists the young women who have caused chaos at his laboratory by falling for the men, the women the ones at fault.

Other things are discomforting from a modern perspective. There's a racist joke on page 196 and a general ease with the idea that resources in China should be for the exclusive use of people in the UK. This may be part of the satire. As the situation gets ever more serious, with moral quandaries leading to kidnap and murder, the lightly comic love story gets a little tangled.

"There could have been bloodshed even something like a civil war,"

says one character on page 200, justifying a rash course of action. But there has been bloodshed: this speech comes just 18 pages after an old watchman, Mr Timpson, is killed by the blow from a cosh, a man called Austin is hospitalised and Saxover barely survives a planned arson attack on his home.

I think that mismatch is down to the effort to bridge different forms: science-fiction with the satirical, fantasy on the cusp of what's credible. It's a balancing act, and one that doesn't wholly work in this instance, but it's fascinating to see tried in this way. In fact, that balance is what Wyndham talked about in a 1960 interview for the BBC magazine programme Tonight at the time of publication. How boggling to see him justify this approach and discuss the mechanics of genre on the equivalent of The One Show

Thursday, May 18, 2023

I Used to Live Here Once, by Miranda Seymour

I've been out and about this week - to the Novel Experiences Doctor Who convention on Saturday, and then to go look at some old documents relating to David Whitaker on Monday - and have done so in the company of Diana Quick reading this new biography of Jean Rhys (1890-1979).

The title instantly won my attention: it's taken from the brilliant, unsettling short story by Rhys which has long haunted my imagination. I suspect the biography will linger, too. It's a richly detailed, very human portrait of a spiky, funny, troubled life and achieves a remarkable thing. In the final chapter, "The Old Punk Upstairs (1977-79)", an elderly Rhys is living in an upstairs room at the home of Diana and George Melly, who had it decorated on her behalf.

She was demanding to begin with, but things steadily got worse.
"The change in Rhys at this point was absolute and devastating. Her loving hosts had become the enemy. Everything they did was wrong. Nicknaming her 'Johnny Rotten' - after the punk prince of bad behaviour - was George's way of trying to dispel a darkness in which no glimmer of light appeared. All their good times had been blotted out. Rhys ranted to everybody who dared to come near her that she was a helpless victim, deserted for weeks on end by a woman who - the unkindest cut of all - produced hideous clothes which her imprisoned guest was then compelled to buy. Even now, Diana was trying to prevent her from going home. Of course, George wrote in his ruefully honest account of the debacle, the converse was true: 'Di could hardly wait.'" (p. 358, citing Melly's "The Old Punk Upstairs", Independent on Sunday, 28 October 1990.)

Throughout her life, Rhys could be rude, aggressive and violent. Yet Seymour makes us sympathetic to Rhys and to those who suffered her "crack-ups".

Of course, that Rhys spent much of her last years feeling trapped in an upstairs room is ironic given her best-known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which (along with Jane Eyre, to which it is a prequel) was one of my A-level English set texts. What will especially linger, I think, is the decades in which Rhys's novel was in gestation, and the role of actress Selma Vaz Dias (1911-77) in reviving Rhys's literary career then seeking to control it. The novel was published when Rhys was in her 70s, the work of a lifetime given the many parallels to her own life which Seymour neatly draws out. No drafts survive, and yet Seymour teases out the development, the competing influences, the story of the book.

There's something, too, in Rhys' various names. She was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, but took on a number of aliases, as a novelist, a wife and, at the end, a patient - George Melly noted that her hospital bed was labelled "Joan". All these different characters, all these different lives, all inside one person.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Daleks! Genesis of Terror

The terrific trailer for Daleks! Genesis of Terror is out now.

The new CD and download release is something very special - though I suppose I would say that, as producer. It features Tom Baker and a full cast performing Terry Nation's original draft of the first episode of Genesis of the Daleks, once voted the best Doctor Who story of all time by readers of Doctor Who Magazine.

I've found it fascinating to work on and hope you'll enjoy it when it's out later this month.

Blurb as follows...

In a paved garden outside time, the Doctor is presented with an awful prophecy: the conquest of all time by the Daleks. To prevent this terrible fate, the Time Lords have decided on a radical course — to weaponise time themselves, and destroy the Daleks before they were ever created. And they want the Doctor to carry out this extraordinary task!

Soon, he and his companions Sarah and Harry are on the battle-ravaged planet Skaro, where a war has been raging for centuries. The war is now waged by teenagers using the last surviving weapons. Everything is desperate. But the Kaled’s chief scientist has a new weapon that he thinks might just change everything…

Disc 1:

Full cast version of Terry Nation's first draft of episode one of Genesis of the Daleks, with Nicholas Briggs providing the stage directions, plus readings by individual cast members of the storylines for the other episodes.

Disc 2:

BBC broadcaster and journalist Samira Ahmed interviews Philip Hinchcliffe.


  • Tom Baker (The Doctor)
  • Sadie Miller (Sarah Jane Smith)
  • Christopher Naylor (Harry Sullivan)
  • Peter BankolĂ© (Time Lord / General Grainer)
  • Samuel Clemens (Nyder)
  • Alasdair Hankinson (Ravon / Kaled Leader)
  • Terry Molloy (Davros)
  • James Phoon (Kaled Boy / Operator)

  • Narrated by Nicholas Briggs
  • Featured Guests: Philip Hinchcliffe and Samira Ahmed
  • Senior Producer: John Ainsworth
  • Additional dialogue by Simon Guerrier
  • Theme arranged by David Darlington
  • Cover Art by Ryan Aplin
  • Director: Samuel Clemens
  • Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
  • Music by Nicholas Briggs
  • Producer: Simon Guerrier
  • Sound Design by Jaspreet Singh
  • Written by Terry Nation

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Flesh and Blood, by Stephen McGann

Yesterday, I think I signed off on one of the five books I've been working on simultaneously. Work continues on the others - next week, I hope to go dig through a box of paperwork about David Whitaker that has newly come to light, in the hope I can weave it into the biography I'm well into writing up.

All this activity has meant little time for reading other than checking quotations and references. But last night I finished Flesh and Blood - A History of My Family in Seven Sicknesses by the actor Stephen McGann. He's been tracing his family history since his teens, and follows a line from the the Irish potato famine to the slums of Liverpool and then on to the present day. The Irish history is material he's already mined in the drama he produced and starred in with his three brothers, The Hanging Gale (1995), while it's easy to see how his wife Heidi Thomas has also drawn from personal experience in the series she still oversees, Call the Midwife (2012- ).

Of course, McGann plays kindly, compassionate Dr Patrick Turner in that, which means I heard a lot of the medical explanations in the book in that same warm, reassuring voice. The seven sicknesses - hunger, pestilence, exposure, trauma, breathlessness, heart problems and necrosis - are explained and contextualised in a straightforward, readily comprehensible style.

What really brings the book to life is the specific, human stories - many of which are astonishing. Stephen's great uncle, James McGann, was a fireman on the Titanic, survived the sinking and gave evidence at the enquiry that followed. As a result, his own voice is preserved in the Yorkshire Post of 23 April 1912, an eye witness to the last moments of Captain Smith.

Stephen himself witnessed the disaster at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 - he was in attendance at the football match, along with his brother Paul. As well as his testimony of what he saw that day, I'm struck by what happened afterwards. It took hours before fans were permitted to leave the ground. And then:

"As Paul and I walked down a Sheffield backstreet, dazed by tragedy and wearing our scarves tight against the evening chill, we suddenly heard a shouted profanity above us, directed against supporters of Liverpool. Pieces of paving stone were thrown from a high balcony in our direction. Shocked out of our daze, we ran for cover." (p. 76)

There's personal tragedy, too, and lots on the mechanics and infighting when you're one of five children - which I found very easy to relate to. There's also McGann's fascination with historical documents, and the sense that going through old papers suddenly gives of your own contribution to history through the papers that bear your name. But what I especially like is how different this is from most biographies and autobiographies.

McGann tells his own and his family's history, but it's actually a history of all of us. How we live. How we sicken and die. What legacy we leave behind us.