Thursday, March 28, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine #602

The new issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine is out in shops now, with lots of information about the TV series starting next month. I've written a bunch of things for this issue, too:

pp. 26-27 Who crew: A head of schedule

An interview with executive assistant Sophie-May Twose.

pp. 28-34 Script to screen: Stooky Bill and family

An in-depth feature on the development of the puppets seen in last year's special episode The Giggle, in which I speak to executive producer Joel Collins, production designer Phil Sims, head of department modeller and fabrication manager Barry Jones, director of Automatik VFX Seb Barker, puppeteers Olivia Racionzer and Eliot Gibbins, and actress Leigh Lothian who played the voice of Stooky Sue.

pp. 36-37 Gallifrey Rises

My report on last month's Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles, including interviews with programme director Shaun Lyon, Star Trek writer David Gerrold, and fans Erika and Katarina.

Monday, March 25, 2024

The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin

"My gnomic utterances," said Fen severely, "reduce themselves to three: that I do not believe in the crime passionnel; that the motive for murder is almost always either money, vengeance or security; and that none the less it is sex which is at the heart of this business." (pp. 198-9)

It's years since I read The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin, a brilliant, daft and inventive mystery featuring Gervase Fen, Oxford don and amateur sleuth. Some stuff in the past year has prompted me to pick up Fen's other cases.

One such prompt was Life of Crime by Martin Edwards. Then there's the beautiful new edition of Crispin's short stories which I got for Christmas. And then there's the bits about Crispin in the BBC's files on early Doctor Who, which I dug through when writing my book.

(A digression: Edmund Crispin and Doctor Who... 

On 5 March 1962, Eric Maschwitz, working as assistant and adviser to Donald Baverstock, the BBC's Controller of Television Programmes, asked the head of the script department Donald Wilson whether science-fiction stories on TV had to be done as six-part serials, in the manner of Quatermass or A for Andromeda. Maschwitz asked if there was scope for standalone, 50-minute stories, either run singly or as part of a series. Asa Briggs, in his history of the BBC, suggests this was prompted by the large audience that tuned in on 20 February to watch John Glenn make the USA's first crewed orbital spaceflight; I've heard others suggest that Maschwitz may have been inspired by the US anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64), which was first broadcast in the UK on ITV's east of England franchise Anglia Television from 4 January 1962.

Whatever the case, Wilson saw the value of this idea and on 17 April replied to Maschwitz saying that he'd set up a unit to report on this. A four-page report, written by Donald Bull, was delivered on 25 April. Bull said he and his colleague Alice Frick had consulted studies of SF by Brian Aldiss, Kingsley Amis and Edmund Crispin, and Frick also met with Aldiss in person.

Crispin's name cropped up again a year later when, on 23 May 1963, Frick reported to Wilson (now head of serials) that she'd met with the author. Having at that point edited three volumes of Best SF anthologies for Faber, Crispin was able to provide Frick with names and addresses of writers he thought could produce good science-fiction for TV. These were: JG Ballard, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Brian Aldiss, Eric Frank Russell and Harry Harrison. Crispin also suggested that he might compose the theme music for whatever it was Frick and Wilson had in mind.

I think we can guess what that was. Frick's memo to Wilson was written one week after he, BBC staff writer CE Webber and head of drama Sydney Newman finalised a three-page "General Notes on Background and Approach" document for a new science-fiction serial called Doctor Who. Frick's memo - and Donald Bull's report from the year before, which cites Crispin - are included in a folder of early Doctor Who production paperwork ("Doctor Who General B", T5-648-1) held at the BBC's Written Archives Centre in Caversham. So Crispin was surely being consulted about established SF writers who might write for Doctor Who, and he then put himself forward to write the theme music.

That's not so odd as it might sound. Crispin was, under his real name Bruce Montgomery, a composer, producing orchestral works as well as scores for more than 30 films including Doctor in the House (1954) and Carry On Sergeant (1958), and various sequels of each. Much of his screen work was for this kind of light comedy, so he might have seemed an odd fit for the science-fiction series Wilson had in mind. But I'm struck that the titular sergeant in the first Carry On film was played by William Hartnell, who two months after Crispin's meeting with Frick was cast as Doctor Who

Anyway, I digress...)

The Case of the Gilded Fly is Crispin's first novel, published in 1944 and set in October 1940. It begins with different people all arriving in Oxford, effectively a long, comic prologue about the shortcomings of trains. Among these characters are various actors, a writer, a journalist, an organist, a professor of English language and literature who is also an amateur detective, and a chief constable who is a published literary critic. 

"By Thursday, 11 October, they were all in Oxford. ... And within the week that followed three of these eleven died by violence." (p. 21)

That sets up a suspenseful plot but things then proceed rather gradually, the first death not discovered until as late as p. 74. By then, we've established that actress Yseut Haskell has few friends among the company of the play she is rehearsing, meaning everyone is a suspect - if, in fact, she's been murdered. It just so happens that her body is found in a room downstairs from where Gervase Fen lives with his wife, so they are quickly caught up in the case. In fact, Fen deduces who killed Yseut that same night and then spends most of the rest of the book keeping this fact to himself, so as not to interrupt rehearsals of the play. That surely means he has some responsibility when the murderer kills someone else...

If this is not very satisfactory, there is also a fair bit of what feels like cheating - Fen and the author keeping evidence from us, so they have more to work with than we do. The last full chapter involves 10 pages of Fen spelling out everything, which feels a little clunky - at least some of this could have been revealed earlier, to avoid such lengthy exposition.

While this first novel by Crispin could be improved structurally, it's also great fun - and constantly surprising. At one point, there's the incongruous image of a room in an Oxford college filled with monkeys and typewriters but - to the disappointment of the academic study being conducted - declining to write Shakespeare. On another occasion, we get a vision of halcyon days before the war.

"'Tell me, Nigel,' said Fen, whose mind was on other things, 'were you here for the celebrations on All Hallow E'en three or four years ago?'

'When the college danced naked on the lawn in the moonlight? Yes, I was involved - in fact suffered disciplinary penalties which must have paid for the SCR port for several weeks.'

'Those were the days. Were any fairies in evidence?'

'We counted at one stage of the evening and deduced the presence of an unknown among us. But whether it was a fairy or just one of the dons we never knew.'"(pp. 117-8)

None of this is for the sake of the plot; it just adds to the fun. There are gags and literary allusions, the title of the book taken from Act IV, scene 4 of King Lear - though the author makes us look it up ourselves.

The murder of Yseut Haskell is ingeniously devised to fool the police into thinking it was suicide. Crispin, a composer, makes clever play with music in the plot - the organist's sheet music and use of organ stops are vital to unravelling the mystery, and the sound of a gunshot is masked by a radio playing the fortissimo re-entry of the main theme during the overture from Wagner's Die Meistersinger (p. 194). I've seen it suggested that the climax of Crispin's later Fen novel The Moving Toyshop (1946) was, ahem, homaged by Alfred Hitchcock in the ending of Strangers on a Train (1951). Surely the method of disguising the murder of Yseult in this novel can be seen in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the Oxford college transposed to the Albert Hall.

This is Fen's first published case but we're told he's worked on several mysteries before this and is well known for his work as a sleuth. It's not the best detective story but it's a very promising start.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Mad Sisters of Esi, by Tashan Mehta

Sisters Laleh and Myung live deep inside the Whale of Babel, but can pass from this extraordinary, vast creature into other worlds. But Myung has a wanderlust to explore these worlds more fully and meet other people, which means abandoning her beloved sister. There's also the enigmatic legend of Great Wisa to make sense of... 

On another world, in another time, Magali Kilta and her adopted sister Wisa are strange in different ways. Magali glimpses moments of the past and future while Wisa can speak to animals and trees. These powers must be kept very secret on the island of Esi, as the locals are terrified of the forthcoming festival of madness, where other worlds and realities bleed into their own. Those suspected of early signs of insanity are hounded out of the community or even killed. 

Via ghosts, legends, dreams, and fragments of history and memory, we piece together how the two pairs of sisters are linked, and all they've been through and lost...

I've been entirely enchanted by this strange, rich and imaginative fantasy told on an epic scale. It's beautifully written and full of characters who feel real, for all they dwell in the most incredible, fantastic realms. These places are vivid and tangible, full of tastes and smells and textures.

There's plenty of suspense to keep the reader hooked. Myung visits an island called Ojda, not knowing (as we do) that her guide Blajine is plotting to kill her. In the years and months counting down to the festival of madness on Esi, there's an ever-growing threat of violence borne from the community's fear of insanity being infectious. As madness blooms across the island, things are especially tense - and strange. I couldn't put the book down.

There's plenty, too, on the way we are shaped by ghosts of the past and the stories we tell ourselves. At a critical junction, one pair of sisters is not reunited because one of them, having heard the full story, bitterly rejects the other, who then makes sense of why:

"I am the right person, just not the same person. It is what happens when you wait for someone to come back to you or you make a map to go somewhere you once loved: they change. Nothing is ever as you left it. ... She disappears. I want to follow her, but I know it won't help. I ache for her. Centuries of waiting and [one of the sisters, but I won't spoil which one] cannot greet me because it is not as she imagined it. Centuries of holding on to a ghost of herself, only to learn it was never going to be like it once was." (p. 389)

What really stays with me is the way time and experience bring perspective to so many of these characters, and to the reader. In the closing pages, the whole thing comes together so that we understand all the connections. It's at once satisfying and sad, the fragments knitting together to make sense of these different sisters, and the love and loss inside them.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Dune Part Two

A week ago I took the Lord of Chaos to see Dune Part Two at the cinema, him having caught up on the first part just the night before. It's been churning away in my head all this time.

The thing that really strikes me is what a sensory film this is, the bass continually rumbling our seats and muscles, and then lots of tingling ASMR. That's all in tune with the wonders seen on screen, everything ever more epic. Combined, this is a feast for the senses, a film you less see as feel. The plot is also continually intriguing, and the result, a bit to my surprise, captivated his lordship for pretty much the almost three-hour run.

The serious tone of it all makes it easy to mock - some have pointed out that the plot if basically, "He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy", set on a planet of cocaine. The Lord of Chaos was also tickled by Kieran Hodgson's bad movie impressions.

True, the villains are all a bit straightforwardly wicked - black-and-white characters from a black-and-white world. Where the film really works, I think, is in the nuance elsewhere: different factions within the Fremen, the Bene Gesserit endeavouring to play all sides at once, and a sense of complexity and richness in the peoples depicted that meant, even though I know the novel, I wasn't quite sure how it would all turn out.

Some notable things in the book (and 1984 version of the film) are not included here, and I wonder if those will feature in Part Three - and so won't spoil them here. I'll also be interested to see if a further instalment still feels like Dune if set more extensively on other worlds. 

Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Trouble With Tribbles, by David Gerrold

As with Craig Miller, I chatted to David Gerrold at the GallifreyOne convention last month and bought his book when I got home. The Trouble With Tribbles charts the development of the first script he sold to TV, which is a classic episode of the original Star Trek. We follow how David first approached the production team, the initial story ideas he sent in, the more detailed storyline and notes he got back, and continue on through to a shooting script - reprinted here in full. There are then his notes on what happened during filming and the response his episode got.

First published in 1973 (mine is a reprint by Virgin Books in 1996), it's naturally of its time, the jokes on set between filming include cast members playing their roles effeminately, while David tells us which women in the cast and crew he thinks beautiful. At one point, he blushes during lunch shared with star Nichelle Nichols when,
"she dropped some cottage cheese down into the cleavage of her skimpy costume." (p. 235)
But this leads to something more insightful as he discusses how meeting Nichols changed his sense of how to write characters from other races and cultures, and the significance of featuring Sulu and Chekhov in this prime-time American show - though not in the same episodes, because Chekhov was brought in while actor George Takei was away filming The Green Berets. This is admirable though I suspect David wouldn't phrase some of this in quite the same language today. Of course, that's inevitable in a book written 50 years ago - and about events from five years before that. But I'm struck by this juxtaposition of an imagined, progressive future couched in a language so much of the past.

Another detail from history is the problem of David's IBM Selectric Typewriter typing 12 characters to the inch when most TV scripts were typed in what he calls "pica", or 10 characters to the inch. The effect was that David typed,
"an extra three words per line, of fifty words per page." (p. 134) 
When his first draft script was copied into the correct format, it came out at 80 pages rather than the required 66 and needed extensive cuts. In my first professional jobs as a scriptwriter, duration was still generally judged by number of pages, and a couple of my early scripts which had lots of quick-fire exchanges, each speaker saying just a few words at a time, ended up running short. Now I'm much happier with a word count: 9,500 words pretty much always comes out as an hour of audio drama.

In fact, a lot of David’s other comments on writing chimed with me, too. On page 10, he tells us he was effectively prepping for his work on Star Trek long before the series was even created, as he'd been a devoted reader of sci-fi for years. Such prep, he says, is essential because it means we're ready to respond when opportunity arises. As he says (p. 15), opportunity knocks only softly - his allusion is to a moth at the window - so we need to be alert as well as ready to respond. I wish I'd read this when I was starting out.

Then there's what he says is the key to breaking into television:
"You're competing with the pros now. You have to be better than they are. ... You have to do something outstanding to make the producers notice you. You have to do it on merit alone, because you have no previous credits and nothing else working for you." (p. 49)
On Star Trek specifically, and ongoing series more generally, he says the usual rules of storytelling don't apply. He'd learned before working on Star Trek that, in movies, novels and plays,
"the importance of the story was that the incident it tells is the most important event that will ever happen to this character."
But heroes having weekly adventures can't sustain this kind of drama.
"You can't run your characters in emotional high gear all the time. You'll burn them out, they'll cease to be believable." (p. 47) 
The trick, he says, is to avoid falling into formula stories; by doing something different, you stand out. But I wonder if your story can be about the most important event in someone's life - that's what your guest characters are for. 

Another telling insight into Star Trek is producer Gene Coon's note on David's story premise, dated February 1967, for what became the Tribbles episode. David originally envisaged it involving a new company on an alien planet going into competition with a huge, well-established corporation over the production of grain. The grain element survived into the broadcast story, but Coon wrote in pencil:
"'Big business angle out. One planet against another.' Translated, this meant: 'On American television, big business is never the villain. Make the conflict between two different planets instead." (p. 55n)
In addressing this, David suggested involving aliens from an episode in the first year of Star Trek; the producers decided to include Klingons in three episodes of the second year, including David's episode. The veto on bad business therefore led to a major development in the wider lore of Star Trek.

On the whole, this is a fascinating and insightful deep dive into the making of Star Trek, and gives the impression of a really fun and supportive show to have worked on. David is an enthusiastic, witty guide, honest about his own shortcomings so that we might learn from his mistakes. He's awe-struck by his experience - and the result is that so are we.

Two additional thoughts. First, this particular edition includes a plate section of black-and-white photographs that is really odd. Two of the photos are from The Trouble with Tribbles itself, and there are a few from other episodes of the time and of cast members more generally. But there are also some pictures of cast members out of character - William Shatner seen with his wife, Leonard Nimoy seen with his wife and with his son. There are then photos from the movies Star Trek V, Star Trek VI, the casts of spin-off series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and a picture of the USS Voyager - none of which get mentioned in the text. I suppose the intention was to make the book appeal to fans of contemporary Star Trek in 1996, but I think they might have felt a little short-changed. It's odd, because David wrote a new introduction to this edition but doesn't mention his work on the first Star Trek movie (in which he briefly appears) or as a writer on The Next Generation. There's no mention of that year's Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations (in which he again cameos), with which this edition was surely meant to coincide. I wonder what happened - and will ask David the next time we meet.

Secondly, via Genome, I looked up when The Trouble With Tribbles first aired in the UK: on Monday, 1 June 1970 (two days after Episode 4 of the Doctor Who story Inferno). It has been repeated on the BBC 10 times since then, on the last occasion in 2007. 

Of little interest to anyone else but I think I first saw it at 6pm on Thursday, 28 November 1985, when I was nine and a half. That's brought back vivid memories of being sat with my brothers at the kitchen table eating jacket potato and having special permission from my mum to have the TV on at the same time. I remember saying to my dad, though probably not about this particular episode, that Star Trek didn't seem old like episodes of Doctor Who that sometimes got repeated. It felt on the same level as new episodes of The A Team and every bit as glamorous.

This wasn't my introduction to Trek. Earlier in the year, for my ninth birthday, we rented the VHS tape of The Search for Spock which had just come out, because (to me) the cover looked like Star Wars. While I was captivated, my two school friends got bored and went out to the garden to play. My mum told me join then, reminding me that this didn't mean I'd miss the film; I could watch it later. Video was still a novelty. 

Anyway - all a bit self-indulgent but this book has given me a bit of a rush, my own ancient past woven into this vision of the future.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Star Wars Memories, by Craig Miller

Cover of Star Wars Memories - My Time in the (Death Star) Trenches, by Craig Miller. Cover shows Craig on the set of The Empire Strikes Back in front of the Millennium Falcon
I've met Craig Miller briefly a couple of times at the GallifreyOne convention in Los Angeles but this is the first year I got to speak to him at any length. Craig worked in fan relations at Lucasfilm promoting Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and then had roles promoting a whole load more of my favourite films, including Excalibur and The Dark Crystal, before writing on various animated TV shows. Last month, he told me about happy days working with Jim Henson and we compared notes about Craig's former colleague Alan Arnold, whose book Once Upon a Galaxy: The Making of The Empire Strikes Back I found so extraordinary.

When I spoke to him, Craig had sold out of his memoir, Star Wars Memories, so I bought a copy when I got home. It's a loosely chronological series of anecdotes about his time working to promote those two movies, from slide-show presentations at sci-fi conventions months before the first movie came out to people queuing round the block days in advance to see the first screenings of Empire.

There's loads of great stuff here, including a very revealing, lengthy interview with the often reclusive Harrison Ford  conducted on 2 October 1979 (pp. 254-264), in which Ford talks openly about what makes the part of Han Solo so good for him as an actor, and why it appeals to an audience. There are also lengthy interviews with Anthony Daniels, the actor who played C3P0 (pp 340-357) and writer/director/producer George Lucas (pp. 369-75). Each is good in conveying a sense of the person interviewed - Ford agitated by the "Hollywood publicity machine" churning out "a total crock of shit", Daniels self-effacing about the disconnect between being feted in Hollywood one day and being back in the UK scrubbing his kitchen floor the next, and Lucas guarded about future plans.

As well as covering the making of the films and the personalities involved, there's a lot on publicity and the merchandise deals which Craig was directly involved in. As a fan who works in spin-off stuff myself, a lot of this really resonated. I was especially fascinated by the deal done over Star Wars figures, which were so much a part of my childhood.
"Another thing about the Kenner deal was that it included in the agreement that as long as Kenner paid a minimum royalty of $100,000 a year, they would be able to keep the licence for Star Wars toys for as long as they wanted. [But in the late 80s/early 90s] there hadn't been any Star Wars movies for a while and it didn't look like there would ever be. So [some executive] stopped paying the royalty. And the licence reverted to Lucasfilm." (p. 54)
A few years later, Lucas announced the Star Wars prequels and the same toy company - now owned by Hasbro - didn't want anyone else doing the toys.
"The new deal for the master toy licence for Star Wars ended up costing Hasbro close to a billion dollars in cash and stock." (p. 55)

It's interesting, too, to see the efforts made to ensure Star Wars characters remained in character even when appearing on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, such as vetoing the request to have R2D2 sing a version of the ABC because the droid doesn't speak English. 

There's lots on fan culture, conventions and activities of the period, and the differences between the US and UK. Craig has to explain to his US readers what he means by Blu Tack (p. 292), while staff in UK hotels in 1979 were repeatedly foxed by requests for ice coffee (p. 299), providing hot coffee served with either ice or ice cream. Towards the end, Craig lists contemporary reviews and criticisms of The Empire Strikes Back - that stuff isn't explained, that it's too jokey, or otherwise not true enough to what's gone before - that have continued to be made of new Star Wars films ever since. 

On p. 392 he points out an amazing detail in The Empire Strikes Back which, despite having seen the film a thousand times, I'd never noticed before. But he also raises a question which I think I might be able to answer. On pp. 401-403, he puzzles over the appeal of characters such as Boba Fett, Darth Maul and Captain Phasma when we learn so little about them in the films. As he says, they look pretty cool but I think it's also important that they're blank slates. As well as how little we learn about their stories, two of them are masked and one is heavily made up, which adds to their mystery. They are characters on whom we as viewers can project. That absence of explanation invites us to imagine their stories, their lives - so they offer us a way in to this universe.

In fact, that kind of participation is what this book covers so well. I've read lots of other things about the making of Star Wars, focused on cast and crew. Craig's book is about how the production team actively engaged with and encouraged fans to take Star Wars to their hearts and into their lives. There's lots to learn from here. And lots to be grateful for.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Uncivilised, by Subhadra Das

“The museum is a powerful and extraordinarily malleable cultural sorting house. [Museums] are places for demonstrating that the West is best, regardless of what the West has actually been up to. For example, when we hear the story of how Napoleon’s troops in Egypt at the turn of the nineteenth century resorted to using dynamite to blow up a large, basalt statute of Rameses II, we needn’t worry in the way we do about the Taliban [destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas]. Even if they did blow up the Egyptian sculptures, Napoleon’s motive was to get them into the French national collection. They would be safe there.” (p. 188).

Subtitled “Ten lies that made the West”, this insightful and often funny book is full of historical details that challenge all kinds of presumptions. The ancient Athenians, for example, wouldn’t recognise our political system as democracy. Their whole system was about governing themselves; we elect other people, usually from the elite, to do so on our behalf.

Or there’s what Magna Carta did — or rather didn’t — do to fundamental rights here and abroad. I’d never even heard of the contemporaneous Charter of the Forest, which now seems a far more radical document, providing rights for ordinary people to land and resources; some of its provisions were still in force until 1971.

Over the course of 10 chapters, Subhadra unpicks a series of assumptions about the “civilised” and the “savage”, such as the superiority of the written word over the spoken, or the roots of political frameworks or psychological insights. In doing so, she shows how art, science and history are bound up in and blinded by a constructed, self-aggrandising narrative. 

Subhadra addresses numerous elisions from the historical record that serve to feed this false story. Repeatedly, women and non-white people and cultures have been left out of the story. I was fascinated to learn that Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs and on self-actualisation, which I studied as part of my training to be an adoptive parent, owes a great deal to his time among the Siksiká people in Northern Alberta — now the Northern Blackfoot Confederacy. Maslow later said he’d been inspired by news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour; Subhadra uses Maslow’s own work and accounts from women who knew him to set the record straight.

I should declare an interest in that I know Subhadra and get a credit in the acknowledgements (I had to check with her what for). The Dr is also cited as a source at one point. Some of what’s covered here I’d already heard, having seen Subhadra’s stand-up comedy act and heard her Boring Talk for the BBC on Jeremy Bentham’s “Auto-Icon”.

But there’s a great deal here that was completely new to me — a richer, stranger more diverse history than the one I thought I knew. What a delightful way to discover the myriad ways in which I’m wrong.

Sunday, March 03, 2024

The Drifter (STW-9 Perth, 1973-74) episode guide to the series created and written by David Whitaker

The Drifter
was created for STW-9 in Perth, Western Australia, by David Whitaker, a British writer probably best known as the first story editor of Doctor Who and the subject of my recent biography. The series ran for 21 episodes over 22 weeks 1973-74, and I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who can add to the following.


The series owed something to an outline for The Lover dated 4 April 1966 and submitted to the Writers' Guild eight days later. David proposed that this would be filmed in colour, presumably in the style of The Saint or The Baron made for ITV. It would have seen Richard Young travelling Europe and getting into various scrapes and adventures, with David describing the character as a modern-day Casanova (whose unexpurgated autobiography had just begun to be published). 

Richard Young’s itinerant lifestyle follows a fire that killed his parents and destroyed their Sussex home in 1961. This was probably inspired by a real-life fire that swept through the London home David shared with his parents sometime in 1960 or 1961.

The Lover
was not picked up but by 1970 David had reworked the idea in a full movie screenplay, Man on a Tightrope, for Armitage Films — the company that made the low budget science-fiction film Night Caller (1968) and horror Burke and Hare (1972). The main character is Richard Logan, an adventurer who has been living an itinerant life since the death of his wife five years previously in a fire. He’s recruited to expose a criminal gang by the enigmatic Nicholson — a name probably inspired by David’s mother, who was born Nellie Nicholas. The film was never made.

In February 1971, David was in Australia, discussing ideas for TV shows with David Aspinall, assistant production manager at STW-9 in Perth. According to a report in the Australian TV Times on 17 February, David was to write 12 ten-minute plays for the channel in different genres that would help to meet newly imposed quotas on locally produced programmes and could be used to train crews.

Then, in 1973, STW-9 recorded a pilot episode of The Drifter created and written by David, with Aspinall as executive producer. The network duly commissioned a 10-part series and later extended that to 26 - all to be written by David. But before completing this number, the series was cancelled at short notice. 

The Drifter
Regular cast: James Halloran (Alan Cassell), Owen Nicholas (Sydney Davis), Lucie Martin (Helen Naeme), Miss Zeigler (Valda Diamond).

Only the first two of 21 episodes are known to survive, and are currently on YouTube.

The title sequence shows, in a series of still captions, Halloran on his wedding day, then with his wife and two children, then a newspaper clipping tells us his family died in a fire. 

01. If You Can’t Join Them, Beat Them (tx Saturday 15 December 1973)
TV listing: “What do you do with a case full of money and the police breathing down your neck?”

A flight lands at Perth Airport and airline staff have to carry off a drunk, unconscious passenger, who carries a ticket in the name of “J Smith”. This is, in fact, James Halloran, some 18 months after the deaths of his wife and children. 

He wakes to find himself in bed at the home of air stewardess Lucie Martin — and wrongly assumes he picked her up the night before. After this embarrassment, Halloran is visited by Dr Lindeman, a passenger who helped him off the plane. In fact, Lindeman spiked Halloran’s drink and caused the whole distraction as part of an insurance scam.

Lindeman offers Halloran $10,000 to continue with the plot. It looks as though Halloran will agree but he then shops Lindeman to the authorities. Meanwhile, an enigmatic man called Owen Nicholas collects Halloran’s unclaimed suitcase from the airport and keeps hold of it to use as leverage.

02. Love On Tuesday At Three O’Clock Please (Saturday 22 December 1973)
TV listing: “Owen Nicholas persuades Halloran to answer a risqué advertisement.”

Recorded in studio on 7 November 1973

Guest cast: Lynn Canfield (Jenny McNae), Faith Royal (Adele Cohen), Len (Max Bartlett), Barry (David Lyon), Judith (Olwyn Summers)

Crew: Camera - Tony Graham, Ian Jobsz and Brett Wiley; Lighting - Brian Grosse; Audio - David Muir; Make-up - Pauline Dunstan; Settings - David Crosby; Properties - Noel Penn; Graphics - Victor Longbon; Videotape editors - Ivan De Souza, Jim McLoughlin and Ray Shaw; Floor manager - Mike Meade; Technical director - Kevin Mohen; Director’s assistant - Pat Green; Executive producer - David Aspinall; Director - Brian Green; Producer - John Hanson.

Lynn Canfield is drugged by two men who then undress and photograph her, and later send a blackmail demand. She goes to Owen Nicholas for help, and he uses his leverage to get James Halloran to investigate.

Faith Royal, who runs the escort agency used by Canfield and sent the demand, doesn’t want money; she wants Canfield to recruit further victims. Halloran takes a job with the agency while Nicholas’s secretary, Miss Zeigler, poses as a potential stooge, and together they put a stop to the scheme. Halloran, who is still staying with Lucie Martin, now seems bound to work with Nicholas — who is an associate of Halloran’s father-in-law, and keen to get the drifter back on his feet.

03. Heads I Win, Tails You Lose (Saturday 29 December 1973)
TV listing: “There is always one big winner at the weekly poker game. The Drifter doesn’t want to play, but must put up with the cards he has been dealt.”

04. Life And Death (Saturday 5 January 1974)
TV listing: “Halloran becomes deeply involved with Owen Nicholas — and finds himself investigating an ingenious murder attempt at the hospital.”

05. There’s Always An Angle (Saturday, 12 January 1974)
TV listing: “The Drifter breaks away — at last — and finds himself staying in a motel operating in an unusual way.”

06. Rogue’s Gallery (Saturday, 19 January 1974)
TV listing: “Halloran investigates when Ramon Salamander buys a stolen Renoir.”

Guest cast: Ramon Salamander (Neville Teede), Salamander’s mistress (Vynka Lee-Steere)

A photo of David Whitaker and Vynka Lee-Steere was published in the edition of TV Week for 8 December 1973 (p. 13), suggesting the episode was recorded around this time. The accompanying piece says that Lee-Steere plays the, “mistress of a millionaire armaments manufacturer who is selling illegal arms to subversive organisations”. 

A preview in the Western Australian on 19 January (p. 33) says that Salamander, “is suspected of stealing a Renoir painted in 1874 [and]James Halloran, the drifter played by Alan Cassells is assigned to find out where the Renoir has gone”.

Salamander is also the name of a villain in a Doctor Who story written by David, The Enemy of the World, which ends with Salamander being ejected from the TARDIS just after it leaves Australia… so perhaps this is the same character.

07. Things That Go Bump in the Night (Saturday, 26 January 1974)
TV listing: “Is there a plot afoot to ruin Harry Starr or has a ghost really invaded his new block of flats?”

A photograph in what may be the 15 or 22 December issue of TV Week shows star Alan Cassell with guest star Perth actress Sally Sander, who was presumably a guest star in this or the following episode.

08. The Strong Shall Inherit the Earth (Saturday, 2 February 1974)
TV listing: “Murderer Manny Rossiter escapes while on his way to gaol and plans to kill Owen Nicholas.”

A photograph in the TV Week published the day of broadcast shows Robert Foggetter (presumably as Rossiter) with a gun, leaning over the top of car to take a shot, while behind him there's a man with stocking over his head. The caption says that, “a realistic fight scene, car chase and ambush will be seen in this week’s episode of The Drifter.”

09. With A Little Help From My Enemies (Saturday, 9 February 1974)
TV listing: “Halloran helps a schoolteacher who discovers that one of her pupils possesses dangerous drugs.”

10. Death In The Garden (Saturday, 16 February 1974)
TV listing: “Mary Auben is a nice old lady who lives on a valuable property coveted by a nearby factory.”

The listings magazine also quotes a line of dialogue from the episode, spoken by an unnamed lawyer: “It’s astonishing what an oral life we lead — eating, drinking, talking, smoking, tasting, singing, biting, kissing and some habitual drug users inject themselves under the tongue.”

11. The Body of a Girl (Saturday, 23 February 1974)
TV listing: “Shirley, a 25-year-old prostitute, is in danger when she causes trouble."

12. The Beginning of the End (Friday, 1 March 1974)
TV listing: “Owen Nicholas puts Halloran in the centre of a fierce quarrel between scientific research and conservation.”

A news report in TV Week on 2 March revealed that actress Helen Neeme, playing series regular Lucie Martin, was pregnant — so she may have left the series before the end.

13. A Legal Way to Steal (Friday, 8 March 1974)
TV listing: “Halloran learns of a way to part people from their fortunes. But Owen Nicholas is much too fascinated with the attractive Myra to show interest.”

14. The Death of Janet Halloran (Friday, 15 March 1974)
TV listing: "Halloran receives a phone call from his wife Janet — who was burnt to death in a fire one year ago."

15. The Death of Janet Halloran (part 2) (Friday, 22 March 1974)
TV listing: “What is the organisation FSD and what was its connection with Janet Halloran? What was the secret she could not tell her husband?”

16. Breakdown (part 1) (Friday 29 March 1974)
No listing given.

17. Breakdown (part 2) (Friday, 5 April 1974)
TV listing: “An attractive girl and half-a-million dollars — the Drifter can have both for the price of a bullet.”

Cast: final listing to credit Helen Neene.

[12 April, no episode shown as it was Good Friday; a movie was broadcast instead]

18. Black, White and Red (part 1) (Friday. 19 April 1974)
TV listing: “Someone turned Rod Taylor into a living vegetable because of his fight for a principle and nobody wants Halloran to find the truth.”

19. Black, White and Red (part 2) (Friday, 26 April 1974)
No listing given.

Guest cast: James Setches, Andrew Carter, Frank McKallister.

20. The Valley of the Shadow (part 1) (Friday, 3 May 1974)
TV listing: “When Captain Keith Colby is invalided out of the army he asks the Drifter to help him find the man who tried to kill him.”

The 4 May edition of TV Week (p. 61) includes a photograph with the caption that, “Scriptwriter David Whitaker created a role for himself in a recent episode of The Drifter. He appeared as a businessman (right) with actors Laurence Hodge (left) and Norman Macleod.” The caption doesn’t say which episode this is from. David Whitaker kept a copy of this photograph and one of him being made-up for the part, presumably by Pauline Dunstan (credited at the end of episode 2).

21. The Valley of the Shadow (part 2) (Friday, 9 May 1974)
TV listing: “The Drifter is involved in a bizarre case of revenge against Keith Colby.”

Star Alan Cassell, quoted in TV Week on 25 May, said that,“Ironically, the episode I enjoyed most was the last one [as] I finally got myself into bed with a bird and there was a realistic fight scene that worked very well. … The fight was in fact so dynamic, a fellow actor ended up with two stitches in his lip.”

But he’d also had no warning of the cancellation. A total of 21 episodes had been broadcast over 22 weeks. The press referred to tentative plans to make further episodes at a later date, in colour. This doesn’t seem to have come anything.

On 3 October 1979, David wrote a synopsis for a novelisation of his Doctor Who story The Enemy of the World, adding the first name “Ramon” to the villainous Salamander, underlining the link between him and the character of the same name in The Drifter.

Friday, March 01, 2024

The Principle of Moments, by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson

Asha Akindele ensures life in the Lower Quarter of planet Gahraan in the year 6066, just about managing not to speak out against the Emperor - a crime punishable by death. In London in 1812, time-traveller Obi Amadi is keen to rekindle his relationship with Prince George, the heir to the throne. Asha and Obi don't yet know that they're part of an ancient prophecy, involving a third "hero"...

I loved this sprawling, rich science-fiction fantasy that hurtles back and forth through time with zip and imagination. The characters and their worlds are well drawn, their lives full of heart-wrenching choices that make for thrilling drama. There are lots of basically good people, trying to do the right thing despite knowing it will hurt others.

A lot of epic space opera features quotations from invented histories to add scale to proceedings. Here, we soon learn that the historian whose work frames much of the adventure - Ishoal Nisomn, ex-acolyte of the Aonian Archives - disappeared in mysterious circumstances. That mystery then becomes an extra thread of the story in a way that works really well.

I'm generally not keen on plots about prophecies where characters are destined to fulfil particular roles or do particular things. That tends to mean they resist but then accept a pre-ordained path, so lack agency of their own. But here, the prophecy is woolly enough, and open to enough interpretation, that we're never quite sure how things will play out.

The Principle of Moments is the first book in The Order of Legends and I'm keen to see where things go next.