Saturday, September 30, 2023

Black Archive #67 The Edge of Destruction

Another new book by me, and the perfect accompaniment to my biography of David Whitaker, this is a deep dive into 1964 Doctor Who story The Edge of Destruction

While so much of the early history of Doctor Who is documented in great detail, the BBC's Written Archives Centre holds no production file for this odd little two-part serial. Inspired by a trip to the Large Hadron Collider last year (yes, really), I've tried to establish exactly what we know for certain about the making of this story. Was it really written over a weekend? How would it have been different if - as originally planned - these episodes ended Doctor Who for good? And why does the TARDIS have roundels?

Blurbs as follows:

‘Really, there’s no more time for these absurd theories.’

Doctor Who can go anywhere in time and space, and visit any alien planet or historical figure it pleases – that’s rather the point of the show, after all. But in only the third serial, the production team decided to set a story entirely inside the TARDIS, with no other cast than the regulars.

Simon Guerrier has ten theories relating to this most unexpected of early stories, and one about the readers of this Black Archive…

Pages: 108
ISBN: 9781913456450
Author: Simon Guerrier
Publication Date: October 2023

This is my second title for the Black Archive range; in 2017 I also wrote #11 The Evil of The Daleks.

Friday, September 29, 2023

David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television - preorder now

Hooray! You can now pre-order ny new book David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television - a 180,000-word biography of the first story editor of Doctor Who, and much more besides. It's published on 6 November. 

There are two exciting editions of the book. You can order the paperback directly from publisher Ten Acre Films and it will be available from all good bookshops.

There's also an a fetching, bright pink hardback exclusively from The Who Shop.  

Both gorgeous covers are by that genius Stuart Manning.

I'll be launching this David Whitaker book at the Portico Library in Manchester on the evening of 9 November. ETA I'll be signing at The Who Ship in London from 1-3 pm on Saturday, 11 November.

Blurb for the book as follows:

To celebrate 60 years of Doctor Who, discover the extraordinary, little-known life of one of its chief architects, David Whitaker. As the show’s first story editor, he helped to establish the compelling blend of adventure, imagination and quirky humour that made – and continues to make – the series a hit. 

David commissioned the first Dalek story, and fought for it to be made when his bosses didn’t like it. Regeneration, the TARDIS being alive, the idea of Doctor Who expanding to become a multimedia phenomenon in comics, books and films… David Whitaker was all over it. Yet very little was known about this key figure in Doctor Who history – until now. Why did he fall out with Irving Berlin? Was he really engaged to Yootha Joyce? And how did an assignment to Moscow badly affect his career? 

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Disinformation War, by SJ Groenewegen

This gripping, near-future political thriller is published by Gold SF, the newish imprint of Goldsmiths Press that aims to discover and publish new intersectional feminist science-fiction. The author is a friend and I get mentioned in the acknowledgments for having been a sounding board for some of the ideas explored in the book, so I can't exactly give an objective review.

It's the story of three people: online social justice warrior Kayla who IRL struggles with social interactions; intelligence analyst Libby who has become the target of a right-wing hate campaign; and Derek, a major-general in the army who is torn by the disparity between his orders and his oath to uphold the law. They're thrown together because of a shocking new scheme developed by the Home Office and private enterprise.

It's an exciting, involving story, the early parts reminiscent - in a good way - of the bleak, near-future and political consciousness of the "War" trilogy of Doctor Who New Adventures books by Andrew Cartmel in the 1990s. But the later part of the novel is concerned with hammering out the practicalities - and clash of personalities - in agreeing exactly how to combat the sinister vested interests behind a tide of disinformation. 

Often, science-fiction presents this kind of thing as an engineering problem: it just needs someone to properly identify the fault for a solution to be found. My experience is that, even when everyone has the most well-meaning intentions, there's rarely a "Eureka" moment in politics and it's more often an uneasy, imperfect compromise. People are a bit messy.

In that sense, the latter part of this novel reminded me more of the end of John Christopher's Tripods trilogy, in which the war against the aliens is followed by a more complicated peace among humans, and our hero goes off to become a member of the new government. Except it does more than that, presenting a draft manifesto plus notes and discussions about how this work might be taken forward. It all feels very timely - a novel addressing the bleak now.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine #595

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts an interview with Bonnie Langford, the actress who played companion Mel in 1986, 1987, 1993 and 2022 - and who will be back on screen in Doctor Who next year. As always, interviewer Benjamin Cook peppers a fun chat with new facts and revealing insight, and it's a joy to eavesdrop.

Accompanying this, there's a feature by Laurel Hart in praise of Mel. Plus there's the regular "Sufficient Data" infographic by me and Ben Morris, this time detailing Mel's myriad screams.

A few people have asked about methodology and what these things actually involve. So...

Much as I wish it had all been my idea, editor Marcus Hearn proposed an infographic based on Mel's screams to tie in with the rest of the issue, and suggested I look at waveforms and decibels. After some time trying to dig into that myself, I called in the technical genius of Nimbos who ran a spectral analysis of Mel's first three screams from the closing moments of Part Nine of The Trial of a Time Lord.

In the graph above, the vertical Y axis shows frequency in Hertz and the colour represents volume in decibels. The first scream, circled on the left, begins at about 3,000 Hz and then drops to about 2,000 Hz - roughly moving from a C note to a B. More or less the same thing happens in the second scream, circled to the right of the first scream and in the centre of the image. A third scream, circled to the right of this, seems to be a partial repeat of the second scream, presumably to extend it and added in the edit.

Below this, also circled on the right of the graph, is the start of the closing theme. At 988 Hz, this is a B, so Bonnie pitched her screams an octave above this, starting at C and then descending to B to segue neatly into the theme music, as per the instruction from director Chris Clough.

In each scream, the volume peaks at about -28 dB, though obviously volume is dependent on the setting of your speakers. But how loud a scream sounds to us can also be affected by context, and note how much other sound - or orange - there is going on at the same time: incidental music, explosions, and yet the screams are distinct.

When we compare screams from episodes, the context can be different - for example, without incidental music or explosions. That means a scream might sound very different, and yet turns out to be at a similar pitch and volume. Other factors that might affect what we're measuring include how sound was originally recorded, how that's been adjusted for the Blu-ray releases we worked from, and how the sound may be compressed or otherwise affected in undertaking this kind of analysis.

Accepting the potential margins of error, we at least had a starting point for comparison with other episodes. This, for example, is the spectrum for Mel's screams while trapped in the Rani's bubble trap in Part Two of Time and the Rani:

It comprises more but shorter screams, and the context of music and sound effects is different, so this graph is very different from the last one. Yet the screams (outlined in the green box) are all at about 2,200 Hz, and many feature the same kind of pitch shift from C to B as we saw before. The context is different in these two episodes but Mel's screams are very similar.

In fact, across her tenure in Doctor Who, Mel's screams are impressively consistent. Unfortunately for me, that means the data is not sufficiently varied to make for an interesting infographic.

While Nimbos worked diligently on this spectral analysis, I watched every one of Mel's episodes, skipping forward to the scenes in which she appeared to note the time and duration of all screams. This raised some issues over the precise criteria for defining a scream. Screams often occur right at the end of an episode and so are included in the recap at the start of the next episode - should those be counted once or twice? There are occasions when Mel cries out warnings or shouts things like "Nooo!" - but do those count as screams? There are also instances when, because of music, sound effects or other activity on screen, I couldn't be certain if Mel was screaming or not. I could identify the start and end of some screams to the accuracy of a tenth of a second but others are clouded by surrounding noise and I needed a consistent approach - ultimately deciding to round up each scream to the nearest full second.

These factors then had to be relayed in the infographic, in as few words as possible.

Having gone through the episodes twice to ensure the data was right, I then had to come up with a way to present the result visually in an engaging way, led by a new and striking illustration. It's difficult to do this until you have the data in front of you and a sense of its scale, range, peaks and troughs. 

I usually sketch some rough ideas before settling on something to include with my written-up brief for the illustrator, so that queries or objections can be raised before it gets laid out. Sometimes this takes a while - and the solution then springs to mind as I'm doing the washing up. But the way to convey this particular data set presented itself during my watch-through and I mocked up the following:

As Ben Morris worked on that, it became evident that showing both time of screams and duration made things too cluttered. That meant further revising the data set to trim down the text presented. Then assistant editor Peter Ware had to point out, with heroic tact, that I'd cut one small bit we needed. Eek!

The result seems to have gone down well. If you like this sort of thing, there's a new "Sufficient Data" infographic every four weeks in DWM. You can still buy Whographica, a book of Doctor Who infographics, by me, Steve O'Brien and Ben Morris. Steve and I also wrote a book of infographics about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Oh, and you might like to read my own interview with Bonnie Langford for DWM in 2014.

Friday, September 01, 2023

Technology news for Infotec

Photo of pink and white Teksta Mini Kitten Robot toy
Since April, I've been working as a journalist for technology news site, focused on the public sector and local government. Here are some interviews I've conducted recently:

HUG by LAUGH — the science of teddy bears for people living with dementia
A simple idea to help people living with dementia is backed by sophisticated research and technology. We spoke to managing director Dr Jac Fennell and research director Professor Cathy Treadaway at HUG by LAUGH about compassionate design and the health benefits of a good hug…

Niall Adams from cemetery and crematorium software company PlotBox
PlotBox software streamlines cemetery and crematorium management so that bereavement services can devote more time to the families who need it most. Solutions Consultant Niall Adams explains how technology can take some of the pain out of death.

Jo Lovell Director of Inclusive Communities at Cwmpas on tackling digital exclusion in Wales
It’s estimated that 180,000 people aged 16 and over in Wales, some 7% of the country, are digitally excluded. Jo Lovell at Cwmpas tells Infotec how that’s being addressed…

Rachel Van Riel and Ask For A Book
Libraries across the UK are currently piloting a new service where readers get personal book recommendations. Some ingenious, user-focused tech makes this practical for time-limited library staff. But it also depends on expert human curation, drawing on decades of experience in how people choose what to read.

AR app ‘Dorothy’ helps people living with dementia
Dr Samir Shah and Ben Williams are from the team behind the innovative, intuitive ‘Dorothy’ app that is already transforming lives, enabling those living with dementia to be more independent and supporting those who care for them.

Chris Mewse from Parish Online
Almost 3,000 town, parish and community councils now subscribe to Parish Online’s mapping technology service. It’s one of a number of initiatives from Basingstoke-based company Geoxphere. I spoke to managing director and co-owner Chris Mewse about how spatial mapping saves local councils time and money.