24 March, 2015

Spearhead from Space: 40 Years Ago

40 years ago this month I watched Doctor Who for the first time. My earliest exposure to the series occurred between 6:01 and 6:30pm on Friday 14 March 1975. The episode was the first part of Spearhead from Space, Jon Pertwee's debut story. I was aged six-and-three-quarters. 

Spearhead from Space marked Doctor Who's return to New Zealand screens after a protracted absence lasting three and a half years. The programme had last screened in September 1971 when the Patrick Troughton story The Wheel in Space was transmitted. (New Zealand missed out on seeing all of Season Six). By the time Spearhead from Space screened in March 1975, New Zealand was more than five years behind; at the time UK viewers were watching the Tom Baker story Genesis of the Daleks.

I was of course oblivious to all of this. As far as I was concerned, Doctor Who was just another new thing to watch on television (four months later, in July 1975, I discovered Thunderbirds and was immediately hooked, but that's another story...).

I have Mum to thank for noticing that Doctor Who was on that evening, and calling me over to watch it with her on our black and white television (we didn't get a colour set until many years later, but at this stage it wouldn't have any difference as Spearhead from Space was broadcast here in monochrome). Mum recognised Jon Pertwee's first story as one she'd seen five years earlier and she thought I might enjoy it.

As parents often are, Mum was concerned about which television programmes were suitable for her young children to watch, but she knew and approved of Doctor Who. Mum had been a teenager in London in the 1960s when the William Hartnell stories were broadcast on the BBC. She had watched the series with her older brother. I was born in London in June 1968, mid-way through a seven-week repeat screening of The Evil of the Daleks. Mum had continued to watch Doctor Who after I was born. I may have even caught sight of some episodes when I was younger and simply not remembered them. Our family emigrated to New Zealand in June 1973, the week of my fifth birthday, between the end of Frontier in Space and the beginning of The Green Death.

My memory of watching Spearhead from Space for the first time is understandably patchy. I believe I probably missed watching the beginning of the first episode. I have this memory of Mum describing to me how the Doctor had arrived on Earth and fallen out of the TARDIS. For many years (up until I saw the story again, or perhaps when I read the Target novelisation), I had this remarkably vivid mental image of the police box appearing in an ornate garden and the Doctor pitching face-forward from the doorway on to a paved pathway between two flowerbeds.

The earliest memory of the series that I can be sure of comes from near the end of the first episode. The Doctor is in a wheelchair, with a bandage stuck over his mouth. He is being loaded into the back of an ambulance outside a hospital when he springs to life and takes off, rolling down a path in his wheelchair at speed. As absurd as it sounds, this sequence gave me nightmares, and is probably why it has stuck in my memory.

That's the only scene I remember clearly from the first episode, but I recall various other bits from later in the story, most notably the boiler-suited blank-faced Autons stalking through the woods (cue more nightmares), Sam Seeley's cottage, and the Doctor and Liz working side-by-side at a laboratory bench, which I think might be from the fourth episode.

I have seen Spearhead from Space many times over the years but each time I do it I find myself transported back to my childhood. It will always have a special place in my affections as the point at which I began watching Doctor Who, 40 years ago.

01 February, 2015

Fan Memories: Audiotape Recordings

It seems a ridiculously antiquated thing to do now, but there was a time when I recorded episodes of Doctor Who as they were broadcast on television. Not on DVD-R or even VHS, but on C60 audio cassettes.

In the 1980s when I was a teenager, our family didn't have a video recorder. We didn't have a colour television until 1985. These were expensive luxuries - or at least my parents considered them so.

I can pin-point the day I started making audio recordings of Doctor Who: 25 April 1983, the day that Part Three of Four to Doomsday screened in New Zealand. 

It started with wanting to make a recording of the theme music. Having worked out how to set up the stereo and microphone in front of the television in the living room to do this, it occurred to me that I may as well record the entire episode.

Lacking a microphone stand to point the microphone horizontally at the television speaker, I constructed a rudimentary cradle using my younger brother's Duplo blocks. 

I begged my family to remain quiet for the duration of the recording, so as to avoid capturing unwanted background noise. I was so anxious about getting the recording right that I often forgot to properly focus on watching the episodes.

As I only had a handful number of reuseable C60 audio cassettes and could only fit two episodes to a tape (one on each side), I was selective about which stories I recorded. If I had the novelisation, I didn't bother making a recording, so for example I skipped Time-Flight. When I acquired a new novelisation, I'd reuse the tapes for that story.

I made good use of the recording of Black Orchid. I listened to the audio of that story so many times. Rewatching the story years later, I realised that I could recite the dialogue from memory. I transcribed the audio and turned this into a novelisation, typed up and bound as a Target-sized book for my own personal collection. It sat on my bookshelves slotted between The Visitation and EarthshockSadly I no longer have this: when the 'proper' adaption arrived in 1987, I promptly binned my inferior version, ashamed of an achievement I'd been immensely proud of just a few years earlier. 

The very last story I recorded on audiotape was The Ambassadors of Death, in July 1985. Around the time of the broadcast of that story my family finally replaced our old black and white television with a brand new colour set. I eagerly looked forward to watching Doctor Who on our new television, but The Ambassadors of Death was broadcast in black and white - oh the irony! The first episode I saw in glorious colour was therefore Episode 1 of Inferno

I was still a few years away from acquiring my first video recorder, but it was at that point that I stopped making audio recordings. I'm not entirely sure why I stopped, but I suspect it had a lot to do with owning most stories beyond this point as novelisations. My priorities had changed too, Doctor Who wasn't quite the all-consuming interest it had been and I'd become more interested in recording songs off the radio than television programmes. 

When I later got involved in Doctor Who fandom, I was fascinated to learn that I hadn't been alone in making off-air audio recordings. This was, I discovered, a common fan activity that dated right back to the beginning of the series. Indeed it is entirely due to these fan recordings, that audio copies survive of every missing episode. 

  • For more on the subject of fans recording Doctor Who episodes on audio, I recommend 'Love Off-Air' a feature on Disc One of the DVD Doctor Who: The Invasion.

28 November, 2014

Doctor Who Series 8 NZ Viewer Ratings

Series eight of Doctor Who recently finished screening here in New Zealand. The episodes, which screened as usual on the Prime channel, were transmitted a week following the UK broadcasts, screening here on Sunday nights at 7.30pm.

Viewer ratings indicated that these twelve episodes were watched by an average overnight rating of 123,273 people. Adding in time-shifted viewers (those who recorded the episodes and watched later), that average increases to 143,114. 

Several of the earliest episodes, all screened during September, received the strongest overnight ratings. 

Deep Breath received the lowest rating of the initial five stories on overnight results. This may have been due to the extended length of this episode, causing it to run an hour later than usual, finishing at 9.25pm. The episode’s strong performance in the timeshifted ratings, indicates that many viewers appear to have elected to record it for later viewing. The episode also premiered a week earlier in cinemas around the country, which may have also contributed to the relatively low rating for a series premiere.

The second episode, Into the Dalek, saw a sizeable increase in the overnight ratings, gaining 18,750 viewers. Ratings remained consistently high for Robot of Sherwood, Listen and Time Heist, with an average of approximately 135,000 across these four episodes. 

The Caretaker, which screened at the beginning of October, suffered a sharp decline, dropping by 28,710 viewers from the previous week. Although the following episode, Kill the Moon, gained back some of the lost ground by picking up 11,140 viewers, the series never regained its earlier highs.

The strongest performing episode from the latter half of the series on overnights was the finale, Death in Heaven, on 128,570. 

The two lowest rated episodes on overnight ratings were the aforementioned The Caretaker, on 106,520 and Flatline on 109,820.  

Consolidated ratings, which include timeshifted viewers, who record programmes and watch after transmission, give a more accurate indication of the total audience. Robot of Sherwood in particular benefitted from these additional viewers, with 24.38% of its consolidated figure coming from timeshifted rating. 

Conversely, In the Forest of the Night, which had an overnight audience of 123,070, placing it closest to the series average, suffered a drop to last place in the timeshifted ratings.

Doctor Who on Prime was placed in the same timeslot as some heavily-promoted and highly popular offerings on rival channels TV One, TV 2 and TV3. Doctor Who was usually in fourth place for overnight ratings in its timeslot, but for both of the last two weeks of the series it managed to make it into third place, edging out TV2.

TV One consistently gained the largest audience share for the timeslot. For nine weeks Doctor Who was placed against TV One’s My Kitchen Rules New Zealand (average overnight 373,161). For the last three weeks Our Big Blue Backyard instead occupied the timeslot (avg 463,370).

Over on TV3, The X Factor screened for most of the run (avg 236,956). When this ended, the movies How to Train Your Dragon (194,540), and Shrek Forever After (275,540), occupied the slot for the last two weeks.

TV2 most often came in third place for the timeslot. For the first four weeks two half hour shows, The Middle (avg 201,312) and The Neighbors (avg 169,582) were up against Doctor Who. For the next five weeks the timeslot was occupied with a family movie, including such titles as Brave and Toy Story 3 (avg 225,670). The final three weeks saw the movies replaced with The Voice (avg 110,480). This series saw a marked drop in viewers for TV2, and the final two episodes of Doctor Who gained higher ratings than The Voice.

Overnight Ratings
(and most watched on Prime chart position for that date)
1. Into the Dalek (7 Sep 14) 135,840 (2nd)
2. Listen (21 Sep 14) 135,740 (3rd)
3. Time Heist (28 Sep 14) 135,230 (3rd)
4. Robot of Sherwood (14 Sep) 133,040 (1st)
5. Death in Heaven (16 Nov 14) 128,570 (3rd)
6. In the Forest of the Night (2 Nov 14) 123,070 (4th)
7. Mummy on the Orient Express (19 Oct 14) 121,850 (3rd)
8. Kill the Moon (12 Oct 14) 117,660 (2nd)
9. Deep Breath (31 Aug 14) 117,090 (2nd)
10. Dark Water (9 Nov 14) 114,840 (4th)
11. Flatline (26 Oct 14) 109,820 (2nd)
12. The Caretaker (5 Oct 14) 106,520 (4th)

Timeshifted Ratings
(and % increase of audience watching timeshifted)
1. Robot of Sherwood 42,900 (32.25%)
2. Deep Breath 26,180 (22.36%)
3. Into the Dalek 21,360 (19.85%)
4. The Caretaker 21,140 (17.37%)
5. Listen 20,500 (16.62%)
6. Kill the Moon 19,560 (15.89%)
7. Mummy on the Orient Express 19,360 (15.72%)
8. Flatline 19,080 (15.10%)
9. Time Heist 16,130 (11.93%)
10. Death in Heaven 12,580 (9.78%)
11. Dark Water 9,770 (8.51%)
12. In the Forest of the Night 9,540 (7.75%)

Consolidated Ratings
(and % of total audience watching timeshifted)
1. Robot of Sherwood 175,940 (24.38%)
2. Into the Dalek 157,200 (13.59%) 
3. Listen 156,240 (13.12%)
4. Time Heist 151,360 (10.66%)
5. Deep Breath 143,270 (18.27%)
6. Mummy on the Orient Express 141,210 (13.71%)
7. Death in Heaven 141,150 (8.91%)
8. Kill the Moon 137,220 (14.25%)
9. In the Forest of the Night 132,610 (7.19%)
10. Flatline 128,900 (14.80%)
11. The Caretaker 127,660 (16.56%)
12. Dark Water 124,610 (7.84%)

Ratings: Nielsen Television Audience Measurement, All 5+, sourced from Throng.co.nz 

09 November, 2014

Doctor Who Talk at the Auckland Central Library

I will be giving a talk about Doctor Who this Wednesday 12 November 2014, from 6 to 7pm, at the Auckland Central Library.

The talk is to mark the 51st anniversary of Doctor Who - although of course here in New Zealand it is actually the 50th anniversary!

I'm be talking about several aspects of Doctor Who, including its long history, how it has been viewed in New Zealand, my passion for the show, my work as a writer/researcher for the BBC DVDs, and my book, The Comic Strip Companion.

The talk will be along similar lines to the very well-received one I gave at the Takapuna Library in 2013, and also at the national science fiction convention earlier this year. I'll be showing a number of images and some short video clips to illustrate my talk.

I will have limited quantities of my book and the DVDs available to purchase and get signed afterwards.

Hope to see you there!

18 September, 2014

Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary - in New Zealand

Happy 50th anniversary!

Fifty years ago today Doctor Who had its first ever overseas broadcast. 

At 7.57pm on Friday, 18 September 1964, slotted in between NZBC Reports and The Burma Surgeon, the first episode of Doctor WhoAn Unearthly Child, was shown in New Zealand to the Christchurch region on CHTV-3.

With that screening, New Zealand became the first place outside the UK to screen Doctor Who.

The full line-up of the day's programming on CHTV-3 
New Zealand Listener 11 September 1964 Vol.51 No.1302 (14-20 September 1964)

Photograph and feature article from page 7 of the same issue.

30 August, 2014

Zeus Pod

Zeus Pod, a new Doctor Who podcast, may well be the first of its kind in New Zealand. Certainly it is the only locally-produced fan podcast based on the series that I know of.

It is the third incarnation of what began eight years ago as Zeus Plug, a printed A5, hand-distributed ‘pub zine’; then migrated online as Zeus Blog. Now the Zeus name has a new lease of life as a lively and upbeat weekly audio podcast, hosted by Jono Park.

Jono’s professional experience as a presenter is clearly in evidence with his confident delivery, and highly structured plan for each episode, keeping things (mostly) on track, though his desire to get episode under half an hour may be thwarted by talkative guests and the amount of material covered in each instalment.

Zeus Pod is planned to run for a ‘season’ of thirteen episodes, with each weekly programme focusing primarily on a review of that week’s new Doctor Who episode.

A spoiler warning for New Zealand fans watching on Prime, which is showing Doctor Who on Sunday evenings a full week after the UK: you’ll want to wait a week before listening in as these episodes are recorded and made available soon after the UK broadcasts.

I was the guest on Zeus Pod’s second episode, titled ‘BB’ (and yes, appropriately enough, it does name-check The War Machines). Jono and I discussed what we thought of the first Peter Capaldi episode, Deep Breath, and tried to make sense of the mystery set up in that episode. I’d avoided going online to see what others were saying about it, so at the time of recording I believed my theory about the identity of Michelle Gomez’s character was original. I subsequently discovered that many fans appear to have reached the same conclusion. We’ll probably all be proved wrong by the end of this series.

In addition to critiquing the debut episode of Series 8, I took part in the ‘60 Second Story Smackdown’. This is a regular segment on Zeus Pod, in which Jono offers up random pairs of stories and the guest has to make snap judgements over which one is better. I doubt I’ll soon be living down one particularly controversial decision …

Jono also challenged me to a ‘first lines’ quiz, involving guessing the correct story from a reading of the opening line of dialogue. I must confess that I felt some trepidation about this segment. I should make a confession here: I don’t re-watch Doctor Who very often. Yes, it’s true! Where possible I prefer to leave a few years in between viewing a particular story, so that when I do see it again I find enjoyment in re-discovering what I’ve partly forgotten in the interim. This means of course that details – such as opening lines of dialogue – rarely linger in my memory. Consequently I was expecting to be thoroughly humiliated in this quiz. Have a listen and see how I did.

I’ve been a guest on a number of overseas Doctor Who podcasts, but it was a pleasure to finally get to take part in one originating in my own country.

I thoroughly recommend Zeus Pod. It can be listened to and downloaded on Soundcloud here.

12 April, 2014

Conclave 2 Guest Appearance

I'm delighted to report that I will be a guest speaker at Conclave 2, this year's New Zealand National Science Fiction Convention (or 'Natcon'), which is being held in Auckland from Thursday 24 April to Sunday 27 April 2014. At the time of writing this is two weeks away.

I was initially invited as a 'Fan Guest of Honour', a position traditionally bestowed on a notable member of the local SF fan community. I was delighted to be asked, of course, but in subsequent discussions with the organiser it was clear that I had been invited so that I would talk about my professional work as a writer so it was mutually agreed that I should be 'upgraded' to Guest of Honour status, joining fellow guests Dave Freer and Lyn McConchie.

I'm not entirely sure the con will be like. The last time I attended one of these events was eleven years ago. I used to be a regular at SF conventions. My first was Conscience in 1989 and the last was Emoticon, in 2003. I've lost count of how many SF cons I attended during those fifteen years, but was a lot.

I have some very fond memories of these weekend-long social events. My favourite recollection is of striking up a conversation with a fellow con-goer from Auckland called Rochelle when we passed on a stairwell at a convention in Wellington. Just last month we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, so I have an SF convention to thank for bringing us together.

The closest I've come to experiencing a convention in recent years has perhaps been at the Armageddon expo that takes place several times a year in various places around New Zealand, but these are very different affairs. I'm always working on our Retrospace shop stand, so I encounter hundreds if not thousands of fans but very rarely get out from behind the stand to see any of the panels or other events. Armageddon expos are frantic, noisy, high-energy, media-driven events, quite unlike the more relaxed pace and social environment of the SF cons.

The main item for me at Conclave 2 will be my Guest of Honour speech on Friday, where I'll be talking about writing info text subtitle scripts for the Doctor Who DVDs and The Comic Strip Companion book.

Here's my schedule of appearances for the convention:

Thursday 24 April
7:00pm - Opening Ceremony

Friday 25 April
9:00am - Panel: The Mainstreaming of SF
3:00pm - Guest of Honour Speech
4:00pm - Panel: The Pasts and Futures of Doctor Who

Saturday 26 April
2:00pm - Panel: SF Series Seriously Sought
4:00pm - Panel: How Writers Do It!
7:30pm - Banquet and awards ceremony

Sunday 27 April
10:00am Guest of Honour Meet-Up
12:00noon Closing Ceremony

Details for Conclave 2 can be found here. Perhaps I'll see you there!