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!

24 March, 2014

A Year Without Doctor Who

The Sixth Doctor arrived in March 1984, thirty years ago this month.

Just a couple of weeks ago I got to discuss this milestone with both Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) and Nicola Bryant (his companion Peri) when I hosted a series of talks with them in Dunedin and Christchurch, at the Armageddon Expo events.

As I talked to these two actors about the anniversary of their first appearance in Doctor Who I couldn't help but think that the relevance was slightly lost on myself, and perhaps also on those members of the audience who were old enough to remember what it was like to be a fan thirty years ago in New Zealand.

1984, the year in which Peter Davison's third and last season aired and Colin Baker commenced playing the Doctor, was entirely devoid of any televised Doctor Who at all in this country. Not one of Colin Baker’s stories screened here until November 1988, several years later and indeed some time after Colin had departed the role.

The series had abruptly halted on TVNZ following ‘Mawdryn Undead’ in late November 1983. This was an unfortunate point at which to break the series as it left hanging the ongoing plot involving Turlough and the Black Guardian.

At first it appeared as though TVNZ were giving Doctor Who a brief respite over the summer months. I can remember being relaxed about this break at first, possibly even relieved. My family were in the habit of going away camping on a remote beach - without a television set - for two weeks in January. I’d have been most upset if the show had been on at the time.

I’m sure I would have been even more annoyed had I known that it would be a very long wait. That summer of 1983/84 came to an end without any sign of Doctor Who’s return. It became a weekly ritual to scan the New Zealand Listener’s television listings, eagerly searching out a billing for the next story, only to be deflated week after week, month after month. The series finally returned in April 1985, after a hiatus that lasted about 18 months. There was a bittersweet twist to this. The return was not the anticipated latter half of the Fifth Doctor’s era (which should have resumed with ‘Terminus’). Instead we were treated to older stories from the 1960s and 1970s. I was thrilled to get to see these vintage episodes, many which I’d never viewed and those I had seen were dim distant memories. It did mean however that it would be years before TVNZ got around to screening those much delayed new episodes.

The prolonged absence was made all the more agonising because for the first time ever I was well informed about what was screening in the UK. At the beginning of 1984 I discovered Doctor Who Magazine. My grandmother most generously set up a standing order with her local newsagent in East London, and started posting me a copy every month commencing with issue 84, which arrived in early January.

Doctor Who Magazine was a treasure-trove of previews, set reports, reviews, and photographs. I studied these issues in obsessive detail, scrutinising every word and picture, trying to imagine what thrilling-sounding stories such as  ‘Frontios’, ‘Planet of Fire’ and ‘The Caves of Androzani’ must be like.

I witnessed through the pages of the magazine the departure of the familiar TARDIS crew of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and (for me, the newly arrived) Turlough, to be replaced by the Sixth Doctor and Peri. My impression of these two characters, played by unfamiliar actors, was entirely based on what I saw and read in the magazine.

A large part of my understanding of what the Sixth Doctor was like came from reading the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip. Of course I knew from the photographs elsewhere in the issues that he had a tasteless and gaudily colourful costume but in the uniformly monochrome strip it actually looked quite stylish. The new Doctor seemed good-humoured with an easy-going personality.

The Sixth Doctor’s stories were extraordinarily imaginative, at least in comic strip form. Even without having seen ‘The Twin Dilemma’ I think I must have realised that the surreal mind-bending visuals of stories like ‘Voyager’ and ‘Once Upon a Time-Lord’ were nothing like what was happening in the television series, but these strip stories gave me a deep and enduring admiration of Doctor Who in the comic strip medium.

1984 and the arrival of the Sixth Doctor has been occupying my thoughts a lot lately, and not just because of the thirty-year anniversary or talking to Colin and Nicola. I’ve reached the point in the writing of the second volume of The Comic Strip Companion in which I’m covering the earliest strip exploits of the Sixth Doctor. Thirty years is a long time, but as I re-read the pages of ‘Voyager’, marvelling at the gloriously surreal twists and turns of Steve Parkhouse’s surreal script and John Ridgway’s absolutely stunning illustrations, I can’t help but be transported back to that time when this was the only new Doctor Who.

I turned sixteen in 1984. I wish I could tell myself at that age that one day I’d be the author of a series of books about the comic strips, that I’d write the production information text for DVDs of those 1984 stories that I used to speculate about, and that I’d be chatting to the actors who played the Sixth Doctor and Peri. I’m not sure which of these facts would impress my younger self more. I’m not even sure he’d even believe me.

27 September, 2013

I made it through the Wilderness

Ten years ago something quite extraordinary happened. Doctor Who came back.

Around midday on Friday 26 September 2003, New Zealand time, a news story appeared on the BBC news website, announcing that Doctor Who was returning to BBC television, as a multi-part series developed by Russell T Davies. 

I don't recall now how I first found out about this news, but I may have been tipped off by my friend and fellow fanzine editor Adam, who had better connections in the UK than myself and had likely been given a heads-up about the news on the BBC website. I in turn alerted my friend and fellow fan Jon Preddle. I phoned him at work but he wasn't at his desk. He phoned me back a short while later but also missed getting hold of me. So we discussed the news via email.

Here's a few of the emails from that afternoon:

From: Paul Scoones | To: Jon Preddle | Friday 26 September 2003 14:30
Subject: News
So, thoughts on the new series news just announced today? I'm cautiously excited but there are so many hurdles to just that it remains to be seen whether it'll actually get to our screens.
                                                                                                                                  
From: Jon Preddle | To: Paul Scoones | Friday 26 September 2003 15:04
Subject:  RE: News
I'll believe it when I see it - as I said to your answer phone!

From: Paul Scoones | To: Jon Preddle | Friday 26 September 2003 15:23
Subject: RE: News
I'll believe it when I've got the DVDs, the novelisation and the Corgi toys all gathering dust on my shelf.

That exchange hardly seems like the reaction you would expect of a couple of life-long fans of the series. Although we were excited by the prospect of Doctor Who’s return, we were also somewhat cautious about getting our hopes up and just a little skeptical of the series actually going ahead.

Jon and I had spent years following all of the various rumours and speculation concerning the potential return of Doctor Who to television throughout the 'wilderness years' period when the series wasn't in production. We’d got our hopes up on numerous occasions, only to have them dashed. In 1996 Paul McGann was cast and Doctor Who went back into production, but what looked at the time like it might be the pilot for a new series disappointingly turned out to be no more than a one-off television movie.

In 2003 Doctor Who reached its 40th anniversary year. I had been editing Time Space Visualiser, the fanzine of the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club for 13 years.

It was challenging to find new and interesting things to say about the series. With no new television series to talk about, TSV was  increasingly focused on the BBC novels and DVDs, and the Big Finish audio dramas. Some readers started grumbling about the predictable nature of the content, and the readership was gradually dropping away. 

I felt the time was right for a new editor with fresh ideas and a new approach. By mid-year I’d reached a decision. I announced that I would step down and passing the zine on to Adam, my new co-editor.

The issue featuring this announcement went to print in the third week of September. The news that the series was coming back broke one day before I was due to collect copies from the printers. I hastily put together a one-page 'TSV Extra' covering the announcement to include with the issue.

I remember thinking how extraordinarily weird that timing was. After so many years of editing TSV with no new series news to report, the revelation that the series was to return came just after I'd committed in print to stepping down as editor! I had been TSV editor since the beginning of 1991, which was just one year after Doctor Who ceased regular production. I’d documented the series in print throughout its ‘wilderness years’ and now that it was coming back I was no longer required.

Ten years on from that wonderful news of the series return, a row of new series DVDs are sitting on my shelves. I've just checked; yes, there is some dust on them. I'm ready to believe.

03 September, 2013

Scream of the Shalka DVD Production Subtitles


Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka arrives on DVD this month, with subtitle production notes written by myself.

I was commissioned to write the production notes (this is my eighth set of subtitles for the DVD range) in early October last year. With the 'classic' Doctor Who DVDs winding down, as there are now only a few titles as yet unreleased, I was doubtful that there would be any more work on the range coming my way. Many months had passed since I delivered my previous set (for the Vengeance on Varos Special Edition), so the offer to work on another story came as a welcome surprise.

I was delighted to be offered Scream of the Shalka in particular because it is uniquely set, in small part, in my home country of New Zealand. I was therefore well-positioned to explain the 'location' used and also had the irresistible opportunity to correct an actor’s painful mispronunciation of a familiar place-name. The New Zealand connection was however coincidental. I was asked to tackle this story for a different reason, but one that had something to do with my geographical location.

Researching a set of DVD production notes involves combing through the production files held at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre. This, combined with a close analysis of the scripts, forms the bulk of the subtitle material. The problem for me is that I'm on the far side of the world so it is impractical to pop over to the UK each time I get a commission. Instead I’m usually dependent on someone helpfully undertaking the time-consuming task of photographing or scanning the files for me.

I was assigned Scream of the Shalka because it was expedient to do so. Written Archives do not hold any production documents or scripts for the story. This is either because the production is too recent (relatively speaking) to have been released to the Archives or perhaps because it was a webcast, not a television drama production. The important thing is that there was nothing on file that needed to be accessed and copied for me. (See Addendum below).

While I wasn't about to pass up the commission, this singular lack of documentation did give me some initial concern. I was worried at the prospect of having to come up with a set of subtitles without any of the usual invaluable documentation to fall back on. I didn’t even have any scripts.

I emailed Paul Cornell, the writer of Scream of the Shalka, asking if he might have a copy of the script or indeed any other material he could let me see. Fortunately Paul had retained all of his work related to the story on his computer, and very generously sent me everything he had.

When I saw just how much material Paul had attached to his email, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. He'd provided various versions of the scripts, outlines, character notes, email correspondence, sequel proposals and more. Reading through these documents, I stopped worrying that I had far too little to write about and instead started wondering how I could possibly begin to fit all of this detail into the production notes' running time.

The one condition Paul stipulated of me was that I let him see and approve my subtitle scripts before I submitted them. Paul sent me everything he had so was concerned in case I included something he considered too sensitive for publication. I'm happy to say that when I sent Paul my finished subtitles for approval the only change he requested was to correct a single spelling error.

Scream of the Shalka was developed over three story outlines and five script drafts. Charting the evolution of the story through these versions proved to be a daunting and yet fascinating exercise. Sequences were added or replaced, names and locations were changed, and many of the details regarding the Shalka themselves were altered. I have included as much of this detail in the subtitles as I could.

The New Zealand content in Scream of the Shalka was inspired by Paul Cornell's experiences while travelling around the country on holiday in early 2003. He and his wife Caroline stayed at my house for a few days during their trip and on one occasion Paul used my computer to get on with his writing while my wife Rochelle and I took Caroline out for the day. (I should note though that I was not aware of what Paul was writing at the time. He was careful not disclose anything to me about this as-yet unannounced project during his stay in New Zealand.) I think it is somehow quite fitting that I wrote the subtitles at the same desk and in the same room where Paul had been writing almost exactly a decade earlier.

During my research I discovered that I had another connection to the story. In the final version, the two men who appear in the opening sequence set on the slopes of New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu are McGrath (in the suit and sunglasses) and Dawson (in the floral shirt).  However in the earliest script drafts the two were respectively ‘Jon Preddle’ and ‘Paul Scoones’. Paul Cornell never let on about this, so for ten years I was unaware that he had intended to name two of the story’s characters after myself and my friend Jon. It was an odd experience to write about myself in the subtitles!

I also received some invaluable assistance from James Goss. James was one of the story’s three executive producers and developed the making-of feature for the DVD. It was extremely useful to compare notes as we were both researching the story. As James observes in the current issue of Doctor Who Magazine (see the DVD preview in #464), there were even times when I corrected him about things he’d mis-remembered.

The production notes for Scream of the Shalka may end up being my final work for the DVD range. I hope not, but if that proves to be the case it is fitting that I bow out with a story that has such personal significance.

Scream of the Shalka is released on DVD on 16 September 2013.

Addendum: Shortly after publishing the above article, I learned from a colleague that files for Scream of the Shalka are in fact held in the BBC Written Archive. This documentation, which was previously believed to be unavailable, is not held with the normal Doctor Who files but instead filed in an separate area. Despite this belated discovery it is unlikely that there is much that it would have added to the production notes subtitles. Paul Cornell's comprehensive files, supplemented by James Goss and others, provided an exceptional level of detail about the development and production of the story, most likely duplicating a lot of what is held in the BBC Written Archive.

30 August, 2013

Poll Result

The latest Doctor Who Magazine (#464) has the results of 'The Best of 2012!' Merchandise Poll.
The Books Non-Fiction category results from the 2012 Doctor Who Magazine Merchandise Poll
The Comic Strip Companion appears in fifth place. That's a good result, especially considering the high standard of the competition and the large number of titles my book was up against. 

Looking back at the poll form (in #455), this category listed eleven suggested titles (including my book), with readers also invited to vote for any of the many other non-fiction Doctor Who titles published last year. A couple of the titles that didn't receive enough votes to make it into the top five were well-publicised and widely-distributed official BBC books.

I'm delighted that my book about a frankly rather niche subject has been so well received.

It is also lovely to see Behind the Sofa in third place, as I had a piece published in that book.

18 July, 2013

Written out of History

One of my proudest achievements was finding a lost episode of Doctor Who, an honour I share in equal part with my good friend Neil Lambess.

Neil and I found a 16mm film print of The Lion (the first episode of the 1965 William Hartnell story The Crusade) in the collection of Auckland film collector Bruce Grenville in early January 1999.

Neil did the investigating that led to the find. Neil then contacted me and we went to meet Bruce and view the film together, thereby verifying that it was a missing episode. I then handled the episode’s return to the BBC.

Neil and I have always been of the view that we deserve to share equal credit for the episode’s discovery and return. We would not have it any other way.

I remember saying to Neil, shortly after viewing the film, that our discovery had surely earned us a place in the Doctor Who history books.

So it was upsetting to see in the recently-published Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition, The Missing Episodes - The Second Doctor Volume One that my part in the discovery and return of The Lion had been effectively written out of history.


The special itself is an absolutely superb record of the early Patrick Troughton stories, showcasing the missing episodes from The Power of the Daleks to The Faceless Ones with a series of telesnaps (photographs taken of the television screen as the stories were originally broadcast).

The special is prefaced with a four-page article by Richard Molesworth called The Numbers Game that covers the various discoveries of missing episodes. Many people responsible for making these finds and returning film prints to the BBC are name-checked in Richard's coverage of the subject.

The discovery of The Lion in New Zealand is covered in one paragraph. There is no mention of my name and, worse still, my involvement has been wrongly attributed to others.


The problem lies with the last two sentences of this paragraph. Here’s the first of these:
Grenville showed the episode to a friend of his, Neil Lambess, who was also a fan of the series, in 1999.
The friend of Neil's who was also a fan of Doctor Who was me, not Bruce. Grenville was not especially a fan (he wasn’t even aware that the series had missing episodes). He also did not know Neil prior to the episode’s discovery. They met for the first time when we went along to Bruce's house to view the film. What this sentence also omits to say is that Bruce showed the episode to both of us: I was sitting there right alongside Neil when we first saw the film.

Here’s how I think this sentence should have read:
Grenville showed the episode to Neil Lambess and a friend of his, Paul Scoones, who was also a fan of the series, in 1999.
Moving on to the paragraph's last sentence:
Lambess realised that Grenville had a missing episode, and helped facilitate its return to the BBC later that year.
This time it's Neil rather than Bruce to whom my involvement is wrongly attributed. I "helped facilitate" the episode's return: I negotiated the loan, physically collected the film and made the arrangements for its transportation to the UK. Furthermore, this all took place within days of making the discovery, not “later that year” as the article claims.

Again, here’s how I think it should have read:
They realised that Grenville had a missing episode, and Scoones helped facilitate its return to the BBC days later.
What I find most surprising about this is that the article's writer, Richard Molesworth, is the author of Wiped! Doctor Who’s Missing Episodes which is regarded as the definitive book on this subject. There is a section in the book where Neil and I are quoted about the discovery and return of The Lion. Richard only had to refer to his own book to fact-check his article and avoid making these mistakes.

I posted about the article’s errors on Facebook, and received the following response from Richard: “Sorry Paul, no slur intended - my brief was to be concise, and quite a few names got left out of the article - it was more of a 'what was found and when' piece. The 'who' often got truncated or omitted. Sorry if I've offended.” A short time later he added: “This had nothing to do with the editor, let’s make this clear.”

I can appreciate the need for conciseness, but this should never be at the expense of factual accuracy. Omitting any mention of my name from the article is annoying but not necessarily wrong; ascribing my role to other people most definitely is.

In the article, those two sentences amount to 40 words. My suggested rewrites above come to 43 words. That's right, just three additional words could have fixed this.

26 April, 2013

Award Nomination

I'm delighted to report that The Comic Strip Companion has been shortlisted for an award.

My book has made it on to the final ballot for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, in the Best Professional Publication Category.

The Vogels are administered by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand.

Voting will take place at AuContraire, the national science fiction convention, to be held in Wellington from 12-14 July 2013. Members of SFFANZ or Au Contraire are eligible to vote.

I'd also like to congratulate my friend Adam Christopher who has received two nominations, for Best Novel and Best New Talent.

The full list of nominations can be found here.

Postscript
My book didn't win an award. Oh well, at least it was nominated. Better luck next time!