28 December, 2009

BBC Radio 4 Interview

I am interviewed in The Lost Episodes, a new BBC Radio 4 documentary first broadcast 26 December 2009 in the Archive on 4 series.

I was approached by BBC researcher Mark Harrison to take part in this production on 9 October this year. Mark described the documentary to me as 'a one-hour piece covering the wiping of some of the early episodes of the series and the subsequent hunt and restoration projects that bring these stories back to life.'

Mark invited me to be interviewed about my involvement in finding the last known surviving copy of The Lion, episode 1 of the 1965 William Hartnell Doctor Who story The Crusade. On my recommendation Mark also invited Neil Lambess to take part in the interview. As Neil and I found the episode together it is only right that he should be involved in telling the story.

Neil and I were interviewed together in a studio at Radio New Zealand in central Auckland early on the morning of Tuesday 17 November. This was a live link-up with the documentary's presenter and producer Shaun Ley, who was in the UK.

In a previous blog entry I discussed being interviewed for Stripped for Action for the Doctor Who DVDs and how I found this a somewhat nerve-wracking experience. By contrast the radio interview was a lot more enjoyable. Listening back to my comments I think it is plainly evident that I am far more at ease on audio than I am on video. In the radio studio I only had to focus on what I was saying and didn't need to think about where my eyeline was or whether my hands were waving about. It also helped that I wasn't the sole focus of the interview, so if I faltered or got anything wrong, Neil was right there to jump in and take up the story, and I supported him likewise.

At the time of writing, the documentary can be heard online via the Listen Again audio stream on the BBC Radio 4 website (though this will probably only be available for the next week).

I found it was fascinating and thoroughly engaging. The focus on audio restoration in the first half of the programme ideally suits the radio medium.

The story of the discovery of The Lion is featured towards the end, beginning around 47 minutes into the hour-long programme (that said, I recommend listening to the entire documentary).

The Lost Episodes is currently attracting some criticism in Doctor Who discussion forums. The central complaint is that it omits other individuals involved in the discovery and return of missing episodes. I have some sympathy with this view but I can also see the programme makers have chosen to focus on an individual episode find rather than covering the circumstances and people involved in each separate discovery. The Lion was selected, it seems, because it is of particular interest. As Shaun Ley says in the documentary, it is "perhaps the most remarkable rescue story in the Doctor Who Archive".

The documentary does however unfortunately misrepresent one aspect of The Lion's recovery.

In the documentary, Sue Malden says that the BBC asked Bruce Grenville if it could have a copy of his film print after an auction house had enquired about selling the print, and that Bruce then agreed to the BBC's request to loan the film. Shaun Ley's narration then states that it was after these "issues had been ironed out" that I went to collect the film.

These comments I think give the false impression that Sue Malden negotiated the return of the film with Bruce Grenville and that I was then despatched to collect it. In fact I sought and gained Bruce's permission to borrow the film to send back to the BBC some time before the auction house or Sue Malden got involved. By the time this issue arose the film print was already held, on loan, by the BBC.

This minor niggle aside, I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to take part in this documentary, which coincidentally was broadcast just days before the eleventh anniversary of the day that Neil and I made that historic discovery of a long lost episode of our favourite telesion programme.

23 November, 2009

The Flying Pig Story

Today is the tenth anniversary of Flying Pig. The ambitious New Zealand-owned and operated internet retail store opened its virtual doors for business on 23 November 1999.

Had Flying Pig endured and become the success that was hoped for when it launched then this milestone would today be a cause for celebration. Imagine if you will a giant inflatable cartoon pig resembling the company’s logo floating over Auckland and a glitzy celebratory party covered by the news media.

In reality Flying Pig folded just two years after it launched. In that time the company had endured considerable down-scaling from a staff of sixty-plus at its height to just six on the day it closed.

A number of my former work colleagues look back on the venture with a degree of bitterness and regret. I understand that. Those of us who were there at the beginning were sold on the concept with the promise of expansion, growth and company shares which never eventuated.

I however have generally positive memories of Flying Pig. I am one of only two people who were there on launch day and still there on the fateful day that we were all made redundant, two years later.

I think in some small way I may have helped inspire the company’s creation. During the latter half of the 1990s I worked for the flagship store of Whitcoulls, New Zealand’s leading bookstore chain. I managed the store’s ‘Book Information’ counter, which involved sourcing non-stocked book titles from local and overseas distributors to fill customer orders. On the strength of my performance in this role I was invited to develop a proposal for an up-scaled version of the same service, to serve Whitcoulls’ customers nationwide. I pitched this to the Whitcoulls CEO who signed off on it. I got my own department located in spare space above the shop with a staff of six to eight people, handling direct phone sales, orders from stores and, eventually, Whitcoulls’ own fledgling buy-online store.

From this seed grew the idea of a separate business venture: an internet store with a vast array of books and videos. Flying Pig was masterminded by the very same Whitcoulls CEO who had approved the concept I had helped develop. The Flying Pig online store was the logical extension of that proposition.

My small team was drafted to join Flying Pig in early November 1999. In physical terms this meant relocating from the second floor of the Whitcoulls building to the basement area of a building situated in Freemans Bay. We were set up as the customer service and orders fulfilment team, which was very similar to what we had been doing at Whitcoulls.

I personally felt frustrated at what I perceived as a sideways move, so agitated to join the content management team located in the office upstairs. I was given responsibility for managing the Video & DVD category. At the time DVDs were very new on the New Zealand market; when I initially set up the DVD category there was perhaps only fifty titles available.

Flying Pig opened its virtual doors to the public for the first time on 23 November 1999 with a huge amount of promotion that included billboards and students carrying placards around the streets. Unfortunately the site wasn’t able to cope with the huge volume of online traffic this generated and promptly crashed, resulting in many calls and emails from frustrated potential customers, and unfavourable comments in the media. It is hard to assess in hindsight how much this incident affected the Flying Pig brand, but internet customers are in my experience a generally unforgiving bunch, quick to criticise and slow to forgive perceived wrongs, so I am certain that we lost a portion of our potential customer base.

Despite this early setback the entire staff enjoyed a great company outing to Waiheke Island as a Christmas party and team-bonding exercise. Who knows how much additional ‘team bonding’ might have taken place had our drunken plans for an impromptu night-time skinny-dip not been curtailed by the perhaps fortuitous arrival of the bus to take us back to the ferry!

During the early months of 2000,the company continued to grow. More staff were hired, a new larger location for the business was located, plans were developed for the addition of such diverse categories as tools and wine, and Flying Pig was to be floated on the sharemarket with staff to get shares in the business.

All of these plans for expansion came suddenly and badly unstuck in March 2000 when the so-called dotcom bubble burst with the collapse of the NASDAQ in the US. The shockwave effect on local investors who had contributed to the company’s considerable start-up and operations costs resulted in an immediate need to downscale. Plans to expand the online store, to move premises and to issue shares were abruptly shelved and some staff members were made redundant. Not long after this we vacated our sunny office space and joined the customer service and despatch team downstairs in the gloomy garage/basement area.

Those of us who survived this downsizing rallied together to make the best of a dispiriting setback. We held weekly barbecues and drinks and a light-hearted team atmosphere prevailed most of the time.

In early 2001, following further down-scaling, Flying Pig was acquired by Auckland-based magazine publishing company IT Media and a much-reduced team relocated to share office space with the likes of Rip It Up, NetGuide and NZ Rugby magazines in Kitchener Street. By this time I had been promoted to oversee the general content for the website as well as still handling the ever-growing video and DVD categories.

Within a few months IT Media also fell on hard times and began shedding titles and staff. Flying Pig’s General Manager left and I was encouraged to fill the vacated post. Despite my initial insistence that I wasn’t equipped to run the entire company, by May 2001 I found myself as the head of what was by now a rather small operation with just six staff.

The crunch time came seven months after my appointment as GM. A protracted dispute between a creditor and IT Media that I was powerless to resolve came to a head with the receivers called in to close down Flying Pig. We turned up for work one morning in early November 2001 to find the website down. A short time later we were told to leave as we had all been made redundant.

I arrived home around midday, suddenly unemployed and in a state of mild shock at the turn of events. That very afternoon I received a call from a old Flying Pig colleague, now working with Noel Leeming. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming to work at Noel Leeming to use my experience to help set up their online store. As one door closed, another one opened, and I'm happy to report that I was later able to bring on board a couple of my former Flying Pig colleagues.

New Zealand's most popular website, Trade Me, was established in 1999 around the same time as Flying Pig. Who knows, had things turned out differently perhaps Flying Pig might have enjoyed similar success, and ten years later, I might still be working for the company. It is perhaps unlikely though that had this been the case, that I would have ended up as the General Manager!

05 November, 2009

How I got Stripped for Action

The Doctor Who: Dalek War DVD box set (recently released in the UK), contains two 1973 Jon Pertwee stories: Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks. The set has been eagerly anticipated by fans due to the extraordinarily successful colour restoration of episode three of the latter story which for the past three decades has only existed as a monochrome recording.

The DVD has personal significance as I crop up in the extras. I’m in two separate features, both instalments in the ongoing ‘Stripped for Action’ series which examines the history of Doctor Who in comics. It’s the second time I’ve appeared on a Doctor Who DVD. The first was on Lost in Time some years earlier where I talked about finding a lost episode in an interview that was shot in my living room.

The invitation to appear in the documentaries came about at relatively short notice while I was in the UK last year on a month-long holiday. I had emailed Marcus Hearn, the director of the ‘Stripped for Action’ series, back in April 2008 to let him know that I was writing a book about Doctor Who comic strips and suggested meeting up while I was in London to compare notes since our two projects covered the same ground.

Several weeks passed. Then, on 20 May, midway through my stay in London, I received a reply from Marcus. He had just seen my email having recently returned from a month-long overseas trip. Marcus asked if I was still in London and if so would I like to be interviewed on camera for ‘Stripped for Action’? I replied that I had two weeks left before I had to fly home and if he could arrange something in time I’d be happy to participate.

Marcus pulled out all the stops to arrange contracts and book studio time at short notice to accommodate my limited availability. We met up in a coffee house in Soho to work out what we should cover in the interview and using these notes Marcus came up with sets of questions. I received these a few days in advance of the recording so I that had time to consider my answers. Marcus had already delivered most of the instalments in the Stripped for Action series, two of which had already been released on DVD. There were just three left to complete the series and Marcus wanted to interview me for all of these in a single studio session. Two of the three were The Third Doctor and The Daleks which both appear on Dalek War. The third documentary has yet to be announced, so I won’t disclose the subject of that one. It shouldn’t be hard to guess what it is, though.

My contributions to ‘Stripped for Action’ were recorded at a studio in Wapping, London on Tuesday 3 June 2008. This was just a couple of days before I was due to fly home to New Zealand.

To make good use of the studio booking, Marcus arranged two regular commentators, Jeremy Bentham and Alan Barnes, for the same studio session. Jeremy is a highly-respected ‘elder statesman’ of Doctor Who fandom who had written some influential articles about Doctor Who comics back in the early 1980s. I met up with Jeremy in London earlier in my trip to interview him for my book, and he and his delightful wife Paula treated me to a very nice dinner at an upmarket London restaurant. It was a delight to meet him once more at the studio recording.

The recording session took place in a small concrete-walled studio. I sat on a chair against a green screen backdrop. In the finished documentary, the green has been keyed out and replaced with an assortment of panels from the comic strips. I was advised not to wear anything green as this would interfere with the process. The screen was illuminated by a ring of exceedingly bright green lights placed around the camera lens which I found very distracting at the edge of my vision.

Marcus sat some distance away from the camera and fed me the questions and directions. So that my comments would make sense in the documentary I had to phrase my answers as self-contained statements. For example, when I was asked to describe the style of comic artist Ron Turner, my answer needed to begin something like “Ron Turner’s illustration style was...”

Going into the recording I felt prepared and confident but once it got underway I was surprised to find the experience more of a challenge than I’d expected. I was put off by the intense lights and to my horror I started muddling my words and speaking too fast. Fortunately Marcus is a patient and understanding director, and we did a few retakes of the initial question until I had relaxed into the process. As we began recording I was directed by one of the crew to keep still and to keep my hands out of shot. When I’m speaking, like most people, I tend to move about a bit and gesticulate, so having to sit still and not use my hands felt unnatural and disconcerting. I’m still not entirely sure why I was given this direction. On the documentaries a number of my fellow commentators can be seen waving their hands around which I think in contrast makes me look stiff and uncomfortable.

Following my session I got to sit and watch as Jeremy (who had arrived during my recording) took my place in front of the camera. I could sit and listen to Jeremy talk all day; he knows his subject very well indeed and is also clearly a confident and accomplished speaker. I had kept my answers fairly brief and to the point, whereas Jeremy expounded at great length, impressively covering the answers to a whole range of questions in a single informative and detailed monologue.

Alan Barnes turned up after Jeremy and I had finished our contributions. After a short break Alan went into studio to record his segments and Jeremy and I left to catch the train home. The walk to the station gave me the opportunity to chat some more to Jeremy about my book and he was very supportive of the project and subsequently sent copies of some early articles he’d written about the comics.

I received my complementary copy of the DVD box set from 2|entertain earlier this week, so one and a half years after the recording I've finally seen the finished results for the first time. I'm never comfortable with seeing myself on screen, and this combined with recalling just how uncomfortable I'd felt during the recording itself, meant that it was with some trepidation that I watched these features. Just a handful of my responses have made it on to the documentaries - but I consider that a good thing; my limited appearance makes them slightly easier to watch, and I'm relieved that my discomfort isn't as evident on screen as I'd feared.

Alas, the credit’s not quite right (as seen in the screen shot). I’m billed as the author of The Comics Companion which should be The Comic Strip Companion. I’ve already had people who have seen the documentaries contact me to ask where and when the book’s available. The answer is that it’s not finished yet. I’m hopeful that it will be out sometime next year, and it is being published by Telos.

20 August, 2009

Priest and Prestige

I first encountered the work of British science fiction author Christopher Priest in 1987 when I purchased a secondhand copy of his novel A Dream of Wessex in the Old Book Cellar on Albert Street, Auckland. That shop has sadly long since disappeared, but my admiration for Priest's writing has endured for more than two decades.

I have all of Christopher Priest's novels and short story collections, and own as many as four different editions of each book. In my defence I'll point out that Priest does sometimes revise his work in later editions so a certain degree of duplication is essential to keeping up a full set of his work (that's my excuse anyway, and I'm sticking to it).

Priest's books have sat untouched on my shelf for a few years now, not through any disillusionment, I hasten to add, but simply because he hasn't put out anything new to re-engage my interest in recent years; his most recent novel The Separation was published in 2002. I renewed my interest in Priest's writing when, whilst recently scanning my bookshelves for something to read, I pulled out The Separation (I only own one copy of this particular title!).

The Separation is a complex and compelling epic story following the lives of twin brothers who experience very different versions of the events of World War II. The novel presents conflicting, overlapping versions of reality and the reader is left to make sense of which bits are 'real' and which are illusory. It is a distillation of the recurring themes of identity, of mirrored experiences and of perceptions of reality which appear in many of Priest's books and short stories, and mark him out as, in my view, a simply outstanding writer.

While still engrossed in re-reading The Separation I was inspired to find out if there was any news of Priest's next novel, so I looked up his website. I'd discovered and bookmarked this a few years back but hadn't visited it in a while. I was pleasantly suprised to discover that in the interim Priest had established his own imprint, GrimGrin Studio, and had so far published four of his own books which were available to purchase via mail order.

I promptly sent off an enquiry email to Priest, with a heady mixture of awe and delight at the fact that I was communicating directly with someone whose work I had admired from afar for such a long time. I received a very pleasant and informative reply from the man himself, telling me all about his new and upcoming books. I sent off my paypal order last week and yesterday received four very handsome editions, all signed and personalised.

I've already finished reading one of those four books, The Magic: the story of a film. It is a fascinating insight into both the novel and the film versions of The Prestige. Even if you've never heard of Christopher Priest it's likely that you will be aware of this box-office-topping 2006 film directed by Christopher Nolan, with its all-star cast of Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson.

The novel on which The Prestige is based was published in 1995, eleven years before the film's release. In The Magic Priest begins by revealing his inspirations and the writing process. I was astonished to learn that he wrote the novel as three drafts, each a complete re-write with no cutting and pasting from the previous version.

The narrative then moves on to various bids for the film rights, with Priest opting in 2000 to take a chance on the then little-known director Christopher Nolan. Nolan is best known today as the director of the incredibly successful Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but back then all Priest had to go on was Nolan's low-budget, independent film The Following. Priest had no input on the screenplay for The Prestige, which was written by Nolan's brother Jonathan. He was keep so far out of the loop during the long period between the initial optioning of the film rights and the film's eventual release six years later, that incredibly his only source of information about the film was what he could glean from the internet via Google Alerts.

In his descriptions of going to see the film, at first at the press screening and twice more at the cinema, Priest appears to be an anonymous observer in the crowd; his only concern after the initial screenining is to dash off to his train, and is later able to eavesdrop apparently without fear of being recognised as cinema goers discuss the film.

The last few chapters of The Magic are given over to an analysis of how the film differs from the novel and Priest's views on what worked and what was less successful in the screen version. He might be forgiven for coming across as a little bitter at some of the decisions taken with the material, but it is a balanced, well-considered appraisal.

The two stage magicians, Borden and Angier, central to the story of The Prestige are rivals each seeking to comprehend the secret behind the other's 'vanishing man' act. It strikes me that there seems to be a slight metatextual echo of this in The Magic. It is a stretch to describe the two Christophers, Priest and Nolan, as rivals, but certainly there is an element of a clash in the British author and the Hollywood director's respective visions of the story in different mediums, but when Priest admits in The Magic that he is unable to figure out how Nolan achieved certain shots this seems to mirror something of the magicians' inability to discern exactly how the other's prestige is achieved.

The Magic leaves me wanting to re-read The Prestige, something I'm certain I'll do quite soon now that I have embarked on my re-read of Priest's oeuvre (right now, I'm mid-way through The Extremes), but I also want to re-watch the DVD of The Prestige. I was disappointed by the film the first time I saw it, feeling that it wasn't a patch on the novel, but having read Priest's own views on the film's strengths and weaknesses, I'm keen to give it another go.

28 July, 2009

Chopping and Changing

During the weeks since my last post announcing the completion of the first draft of my book, The Comic Strip Companion, I've been editing the manuscript. I was looking forward to this part of the process, but it is proving to be a bit of a challenge.

Having spent the best part of two decades as the editor of a fanzine, I've had a fair bit of experience of proofing and editing the work of other writers, and I think I've become fairly adept at this.

What I've discovered is that I'm not nearly so good at editing my own work. I can stare at something I've written and struggle to see the faults. The problem is simply that when I read over my own work I know in my head what it's supposed to say, which gets in the way of recognising what I've actually written.

Ultimately the book will need a fresh eye to read it over and pick up the bits I've missed, but before then I need to do an edit and a rewrite to pull it into shape, and that's what's keeping me busy at present.

It's not just about tidying up the words; I've also been rearranging the structure. The book follows the format of an episode guide and, as part of each entry, I've written about each story's various reprints. Reading back over the finished book I could see that the entries for stories without any reprints seemed a lot more readable. These entries didn't interrupt the narrative flow with diversions to discuss a reprinting that had occurred twenty or thirty years later.

Another problem I had with the reprint sections was that some of the observations I was making were common to a number of the reprints, such as (for example) the removal of artist credits, or the colouring of black & white strips. This resulted in a large amount of frankly rather awkward repetition.

The solution came to me as I embarked on the editing process: remove all of the individual reprint sections and group them all together in an Appendix at the back of the book. All of that unnecessary repetition was dispensed with as I discussed features relevant to a whole swag of reprinted stories within a few concise paragraphs. As a consequence, my word count plunged. I think I lost in the region of six thousand words in just one day, which sounds alarming, but they we re words I really didn't need and, much more importantly, the book has significantly improved.

Right, back to the editing.

08 June, 2009

First Draft Finished!

I've just this hour finished writing the last section of the final chapter of my book, The Comic Strip Companion (Vol 1: 1964-79).

I began writing on 14 April 2007, so it's taken me slightly over two years to get to this point.

As my book takes the form of an episode guide my work has been mapped out for me from the start; I've had to chronicle stories both good and bad and find something uniquely meaningful to write about each and every one of the Doctor's first fifteen years of comic strip adventures.

I've maintained a spreadsheet to keep track of my work, so I can see at a glance that I've scrutinised and documented the contents of 1,993 individual pages of comic strip, as well as a stack of reprints not included in that total. The word count stands at 207,189.

Work on the book is far from complete, however. There's a few short supplementary sections to be added and the whole manuscript's going to need revising from beginning to end.

I'm planning to put the book aside and focus my attention elsewhere; on another, shorter writing commission I have waiting for me. I'm hoping that this will clear my head, so I can come back to the manuscript with a relatively fresh eye. I've edited work by many other writers over the years, so I hope I can be equally efficient with my own material.

30 May, 2009

New Companion

The new Doctor Who companion will be played by Karen Gillan.

Just last week I was discussing the new companion with Toby Hadoke, a fellow fan who was visiting from the UK. As well-informed as Toby is about various aspects of the series, he didn't know who would be playing the new companion. We both thought that an announcement had to be imminent though - and sure enough just days later a name has been revealed.

I was working on my book late tonight and happened to flick over to Facebook and spot that someone had just mentioned the casting. I looked up the BBC News site to see the full announcement, which again had only just been posted. This is quite a novelty for me as usually by the time I find out about a piece of major Doctor Who news it's already all over the Internet.

I notice that a Google search for Karen's name at this stage doesn't bring up many useful results - all that will soon change, I'm sure. I also see that Karen's Wikipedia page was only created today - mere minutes after the announcement.

So who is Karen Gillan? All I've seen of her is her role as an unnamed soothsayer in The Fires of Pompeii. I expect there will be many fans rewatching that episode now in an attempt to get an idea of what Karen is like as an actress.

I think it's interesting that a trend's developing, in that Karen follows in the footsteps of Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate, each of whom first appeared in a one-off role in the new series prior to being offered a regular part as the companion. Perhaps we're getting to the point where we'll start looking rather closer at each actress who appears in Doctor Who and sizing her up as the next companion!

10 May, 2009

Boldly Going...

The first Star Trek movie I watched on the big screen was The Wrath of Khan. I went to see it with my first girlfriend, who was far more obsessed with Star Trek than I was. She was utterly inconsolable when Spock died at the end.

Seeing the new Star Trek film today I was left wondering how she might have reacted. No doubt she would have been relieved that Spock survived, but there’s some fairly radical retooling going on regarding the series continuity, with some devastating events that might induce weeping among some hardcore Trekkies.

I’ve watched most Star Trek episodes and movies and I once belonged to an SF club dominated by trekkies, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. It certainly didn’t bother me that the new film effectively erases or at least drastically alters events from the moment of Captain Kirk’s birth onwards.

The new film does for Star Trek what the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale did for the James Bond franchise in that it goes back to the beginning and retells the origins with a fresh outlook and a thoroughly modern appearance. The slate isn’t wiped entirely clean however. Just as Casino Royale retained Judi Dench’s M as a link from the old to the new, Star Trek has Leonard Nimoy’s Spock popping up to reassure viewers that this really is still the same old series.

The changes to the heavily-continuity laden Trek universe wrought by the film very cleverly reboots the franchise from the beginning - all bets are off as to what happens next for Kirk and his crew - whilst at the same time still allowing for the prior existence (from the elderly Spock’s perspective at least) of all of the television series and movies.

I thought the cast were on the whole very good, allowing for the fact that the actors had the difficult task of replacing some very well-established performers. For me the stand-out was Karl Urban, who absolutely nailed Dr McCoy’s dry cynicism.

Above all else, this film unequivocally breaks the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films!

07 April, 2009

Meeting One’s Heroes

Rochelle and I spent this last weekend in Wellington during which time we promoted Rochelle’s new company Retrospace at the Armageddon expo. Almost the entire weekend was spent selling merchandise and I found that this provided an opportunity to meet many fans that I wouldn’t have a talked to had I been at Armageddon as just another attendee. I was stunned at the number of young pre-teen and teenage girls who professed to be fans of the series and obviously knew all of the new series stories in great detail, proudly claiming to have watched "every episode of Doctor Who" (meaning of course everything from 2005 onwards) . These fans seemed to identify very much with David Tennant’s Doctor (rather than, say, Rose or Martha), and at least a couple of young female fans were dressed up as the Tenth Doctor.

One of the first people I met on the first day of the expo was a young man called Floyd. Upon sighting issues of TSV on the table, he asked me if I knew Paul Scoones. When I explained that I was he, Floyd almost exploded with delight, asking to shake my hand and have his photo taken with me. He’d read TSV since he was a boy, and really was genuinely was awed to meet me. I'm not recounting this incident in order to mock him. Although I felt undeserving of his accolades, at the same time I was also impressed that he had such respect and admiration for my work. I met many more TSV readers over the course of the weekend that had nothing but kind words to say about the magazine, but no one came close to this guy in terms of sheer unbridled enthusiasm.

Later in the weekend I got to take Floyd’s place and meet one of my own personal heroes, the Fifth Doctor himself, Peter Davison. Davison, along with Mark Strickson (who played Turlough) were two of a handful of star guests at the expo.

I had been asked by the organiser, Bill Geradts, to interview Peter and Mark in a panel on stage on both days of the expo. I arrived with a prepared list of questions covering aspects of the careers of both men, only to learn from Bill that the two actors had decided that they didn't want to be interviewed and instead preferred to take questions from the audience. I was a bit deflated at this having gone to some effort and also told a number of people that I'd be conducting the interviews, but at the same time I was also a little relieved. I’d been concerned about how the interview would be received by both the actors and the audience alike. It also freed me up to spend more time on the Retrospace sales table where it rapidly became clear that Rochelle would be swamped with customers for most of the weekend.

Photo: Peter Davison (L) and Mark Strickson (R) on stage at Armageddon.

I needed to present Peter Davison with a copy of the latest TSV issue, which contained an interview that Adam McGechan had conducted with him many months earlier. I waited around until the autograph queue had slowed to a trickle, and then joined the end of the line. The woman immediately ahead of me had a large stack of photos for Peter to sign, and I could see that although he was still being pleasant to her, that he’d really rather be doing something else.

I nipped past the woman and instead struck up a conversation with Mark Strickson, who was sitting next to Peter. I’d interviewed Mark almost twenty years earlier at an Auckland convention, and told him this. Mark understandably didn’t recall our earlier meeting, but it broke the ice and I told him that I was writing information subtitles for the BBC Doctor Who DVDs, and we compared notes on a couple of specific incidents from his stories that I’d been researching.

Peter Davison had up until this point looked to me understandably rather weary at having signed so many autographs, but as he listened in on our conversation his face lit up with a broad smile and he began talking to me, offering his own thoughts on the stories we were discussing. He asked about which titles I was working on and the three of us discussed the upcoming releases. (I won’t go into specifics as all of the titles I’m doing have yet to be announced on the schedules.)

Having gained Peter’s undivided attention, I then got to talking with him about his other roles and I told him about my great appreciation for another of his series, A Very Peculiar Practice. We shared our mutual hope that the second series would one day come out on DVD (Peter felt that the fact that it was made by BBC Birmingham had effectively shut it out of the schedules). He seemed delighted at my suggestion that At Home with the Braithwaites was his opportunity to play a raving unhinged character after having been perhaps the only truly sane one in Peculiar Practice.

I presented Peter with TSV 76, and he seemed genuinely touched that I’d gone to the trouble of handing it to him in person. We shook hands and he thanked me very much for talking to him. I think he was relieved that I’d talked to him as a fellow professional, our common ground being that we both worked on the BBC Doctor Who DVDs, and that I hadn’t asked for a photo or an autograph like so many hundreds of fans had done over the weekend.

I came away from that meeting feeling elated at having met a childhood hero. Peter Davison had been my Doctor when I was a teenage fan, and for nostalgic reasons remains a firm personal favourite amongst all of the actors to have played the role.

As I'm sure Floyd would agree, it can be a thrilling experience to meet one’s heroes.

10 March, 2009


David Bishop introduced me to Watchmen when he loaned me the graphic novel sometime in the second half of 1989. I was sceptical as I'm not much of a fan of superhero comics, but David assurred me that this was something different, something extraordinary.

Watchmen blew my mind. It opened my eyes to the wondrous potential of comic strip narrative structure. I marvelled at the dense, multi-layered plot, the frequent time shifts, the metaphors, hidden clues in the artwork and the sheer scale of the story.

Twenty years later, I've just seen the movie version on the big screen. I can't think of any other movie project that has spent as long in development as this one. I've waited years to see it, and thankfully it didn't disappoint.

The direction was superb, clearly taking many visual cues from pages of the comic. It was an odd sensation recognising so much of the imagery as familiar in a movie I had never seen before. It was equally jarring when the movie did diverge from its source material such as, for example, the outward appearance of Veidt's Antarctic fortress.

The cast for the most part were very good indeed; I especially liked Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg and Jackie Earle Haley was just perfect in the pivotal role of Rorschach. Malin Akerman's performance as Laurie was however disappointingly a bit flat. Maybe she was directed to underplay the part, but I didn't engage with the character as much as I did with the other costumed heroes.

I've read that the movie has had at least half an hour cut from the theatrical release, which will be reinstated for the DVD. Although I could see the gaps I believe that's because I'm familiar with the source material. It looked pretty seamless to me on screen, and the only exception I can think of being Hollis Mason, most of whose scenes were chopped, leaving him as a character who crops up briefly early in the movie and is never seen again.

The major difference between the comic and the film is the ending. I wasn't expecting this to be the case, but I actually prefer the movie version. I don't believe that a giant squid-like alien would have been in keeping with the tone and style of the rest of the movie. I always thought it jarred a little in the comic.

Just as in the comic, there's a lot to take in when watching the movie, and I suspect that it will reward multiple viewings. I'm certainly very much looking forweard to getting hold of the extended version on DVD.

28 February, 2009

Back to School

Many years ago I trained as a Secondary School teacher. It seemed at the time like the best option to make full use of my university degree in History and English. I completed the one-year course, during which I taught in three different schools, and graduated with a Diploma of Teaching.

The problem was that after graduation there was a shortage of jobs in teaching. I could count the list of vacancies on one hand. The only use I made of my DipTch qualification was to do some short-term, private tutition work, helping students prep for their exams. Eventually I moved into other work, and left teaching behind.

My teacher training never seemed like a wasted year of my life; as a manager of a number of staff in three different companies, I've found that many of the basic principles of classroom teaching have served me well. My teacher training gave me the skills to be an effective communicator, to keep people on task, to plan effectively.

Much as I enjoy writing, it's not lucrative enough to sustain me financially, so I've been giving so thought about what I want to do next. Preferably something that leaves me with enough time to continue writing part-time.

So I've been thinking about relieving teaching. My DipTch is still recognised; I just need to do a retaining course to get back up to speed and get registered.

I started looking into this last week and learned that the goverment funds free courses for returning teachers, to encourage people like myself to get back into the profession.

TeachNZ, the teacher recruitment unit of the Ministry of Education, pointed me in the direction of my old alma mater, the University of Auckland. When I finally got through to the right person (which was a mission in itself), I learned that there is indeed a retraining course coming up, but there's some doubt over whether it will take place as the course has not received any funding.

If the funding doesn't come though, the course won't take place. Without this course I cannot register and I cannot teach.

Meanwhile in the newspapers and on the television we're told that the goverment is pouring millions into job creation schemes. How about putting some of that money into teacher training...?

19 February, 2009

Making Progress

I've reached an important milestone in the writing of The Comic Strip Companion.

As of tonight, I’ve finished the last of the chapters dealing with all of the Doctor Who comic strip stories originated in TV Comic, Countdown and TV Action magazines from 1964 to 1979, which is the period covered by this volume. I've so far written 159,311 words. I've written individual entries for 166 different comic strip stories or, to put it another way, 1,601 comic strip pages - and that's not counting all of the various reprints which I've also covered.

Most of the book is now written - but there's still more to be done.

There are other comic strips published during this period that, although they are not considered part of the regular series, it would be remiss of me not to cover them in the book. These include the strips that appeared in: the Doctor Who Annuals; the Dalek Annuals; the three 1960s Dalek books; The Daleks strips from TV Century 21 comic; and the American comic adaptation of the first Dalek movie. This material amounts to an additional 56 stories, which might sound like a lot but many of these stories are significantly shorter than the ones I've already covered. This extra material will form supplementary chapters located at the rear of the book.

I've also got some recently discovered archival material that I need to find places to write about in the chapters I've already written. This previously unseen material casts new light on the origins of the Doctor Who strip and provides additional insight into the development of a number of the early strips. The documents also include three story proposals which were never published. This information has never been published elsewhere and will undoubtedly be of great interest.

I need to devote some time as well to revisiting some of what I’ve already written. I started work on the book nearly two years ago and over that time I've gradually tweaked the format and style as I’ve progressed through the chapters. I need to revisit the earliest sections I wrote and do some revising so that the whole book ends up with a readable, consistent format and style.

Right now though, I feel a sense of achievement in having written all fourteen chapters that form the main body of the book. There’s a way to go before I’m done, but now it feels like the end is on the horizon.

12 February, 2009

Going Down in History

I'm concentrating most of my time on writing my book (latest word count: 152,000 words or thereabouts), which is why I haven't blogged in the last month.

I do however want to take a moment to mention the lovely surprise I received on opening the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine (#405) today. Editor Tom Spilsbury's 'On this Month' column (which takes a nostalgic look at a past issue) casts an eye over issue 275 from ten years ago, and covers the article I wrote for that issue (one of my first professional writing commissions), about the return of The Lion. I wasn't expecting this, so it was a delightful to see that Tom namechecked both myself and Neil Lambess, and even quotes Neil on his likening of the find to something out of Indiana Jones.

After all this time it's still a thrill to see myself and Neil remembered for our small contribution to Doctor Who history.

Here's the item:

05 January, 2009

The Eleventh Doctor

“Hello, Paul? It’s Ben from Radio Live here. I’ve just spotted the news about Doctor Who. I'm wondering if you would talk to Jemma on our show tomorrow morning about it.”

That was the phone call I received yesterday, and as a result at 6:55am this morning I was on air talking about Doctor Who. I couldn’t help thinking that, ten years on, history was repeating itself. When the news broke about the return of the missing episode in January 1999 I was hounded by the television radio and print media.

But Radio Live wasn't calling about a missing episode. The news was that the BBC had just announced the casting of the Eleventh Doctor. Even though I’d only discovered the identity of the actor myself less than an hour before that phone call, I agreed to the interview.

The casting of the Doctor had taken place in secrecy, as these things do, fuelling a media frenzy in the UK ever since 29 October 2008 when Tenth Doctor David Tennant publically announced his resignation live on television whilst accepting the National Television Award (for Outstanding Drama Performance). It’s a measure of just how massive Doctor Who is these days that speculation flooded the UK news media.

Fan discussion forums were just as busy, endlessly debating the merits of such supposed contenders as Paterson Joseph, David Morrissey, Chiwetel Ejiofor and James Nesbitt among many others. Billie Piper was even mooted as a strong contender, which seems absurd – not I hasten to add because of her gender, but because having been so strongly identified in the series as Rose Tyler, having her play the Doctor just simply would have been way too confusing.

Betting agencies soon got in on the act, with updated lists of their odds widely reported. It’s perhaps instructional to note for future casting speculation that they were well off the mark; the actor awarded the role didn’t even appear in Betfair’s top 20 picks, just hours before the announcement (which leads me to wonder if he was tempted to put a wager on himself; that could have been a nice little earner!).

The announcement was made on Doctor Who Confidential, a BBC television documentary screened in the UK on Saturday evening. I downloaded it Sunday morning while staying well clear of the rest of the internet, least I spoil it for myself. Rochelle and I then sat down and watched the special in the early afternoon, seeing for the first time Matt Smith, the man who will be the Eleventh Doctor.

At just twenty-six year old, Matt Smith is the youngest of the eleven Doctor actors, but only a few years younger than Peter Davison was when he accepted the part of the Fifth Doctor (he was 29). Apparently the producers were not particularly looking for a young man when they began the casting process, but the final decision to go with someone so youthful must surely have been guided by such factors as the ability to cope with the gruelling recording schedule (which could easily wear out an older actor); and also to appeal to the series’ huge audience of children (I’m sure Matt Smith will look more appealing on the covers of the Doctor Who Adventures magazine than, say, James Nesbitt).

I’m not familiar with any of Matt Smith's roles and didn’t recognise his face or his name (though as I’ve watched The Secret Diary of a Call Girl and part of Ruby in the Smoke – in both of which he starred opposite Billie Piper – I realise that I must have seen him before). I like the idea that the BBC has gone with a virtual unknown. I think some of the Doctors, and Peter Davison most of all, suffered from strong public association with prior roles (Davison was already well-known as veterinarian Tristan Farnon from All Creatures Great and Small).

I like the fact too that Matt Smith has very slightly unusual facial features, including a high forehead and a prominent chin. Looking a little bit odd ought to be a plus factor for the Doctor. Tom Baker for example had a rather distinctive appearance (bulging eyes, huge bushy hair, too many teeth) which all helped him to define the part as his own. In his interview he waggled his fingers very expressively while talking, which immediately struck me as very 'Doctorish', and something I'd be keen to see him carry over into his performance.

It’s likely to be a year and a half before we first get to see Matt Smith playing the Doctor on television, but I for one am looking forward to see what he does with the role in 2010.

03 January, 2009

The Lion's Roar

This morning I received a text message from my old friend Neil Lambess wishing me a happy tenth anniversary.

It was ten years ago today that Neil phoned me to ask if I'd meet him later that day.

That was, for me, the beginning of a whirlwind of events that earned us a place in Doctor Who history books. Neil had contacted Auckland film collector Bruce Grenville, who apparently had a missing Doctor Who episode 16mm film print in his possession. Bruce agreed that Neil and I could come around to his Grey Lynn flat and view it on the evening of Sunday 3 January 1999.

The missing episodes are the Doctor Who equivalent of the holy grail; film prints and videotapes junked and destroyed by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s in the belief that no one would ever miss them. This was in the days before repeat screenings were commonplace and home video was unheard of.

Bruce had the first episode of a 1965 story called The Crusade. The individual episode was called The Lion. It was the only known surviving copy in existence.

My own contribution to the discovery was to negotiate for the loan of the film print. The BBC wanted to borrow it long enough to clean up the film and make copies. I communicated with the BBC's restoration team and persuaded the collector to loan the film. I was nervous that at any moment the negotiations could have fallen through, and I'll never forget the moment I walked back to my car with the film safely clutched under my arm.

For one evening I was in possession of perhaps what was - at that moment - the rarest, most coveted Doctor Who item in existence. Here's a photo of me taken that evening, clutching the film.

(It's a sign of the changing times that whilst those shelves behind me are still in the same position in my study, these days they're filled with DVDs rather than videotapes...)

I despatched the film to the BBC's Doctor Who restoration teamin London by secure FedEx courier the following morning.

These days, the episode can be viewed on the BBC DVD Lost in Time. In addition to the episode, the DVD contains an interview with myself, Neil and Bruce Grenville. Our contribution to Doctor Who is recorded for posterity.

A decade on from that historic find, Neil and I remain very proud of our achievement. Neil - thanks for the memories, my friend. Isn't it time we found another one?

The full story of the film's discovery can be read online here.