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!

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.