03 November, 2011

Sex in Space

The Prison in Space is an unmade Doctor Who story from Patrick Troughton's last season that has survived as a complete set of scripts. These scripts have just been published as a book by Richard Bignell under the Nothing at the End of the Lane imprint.

The four-part serial was conceived as a light-hearted comedy story, a broad satire of the battle of the sexes. Commissioned in April 1968 from the experienced television scriptwriter Dick Sharples, for a time during its development it was intended to write out Jamie and introduce a replacement male companion. The story is especially remarkable because it came so very close to being made. A director, David Maloney, had been assigned, design work was underway and casting was in progress by early October 1968 when producer Peter Bryant decided the story was not working out. Its replacement was The Krotons.

Early this year, Richard Bignell asked me if I’d like to write a review of the story as part of the supplementary material to be included in the book. I had previously written a piece for Richard’s first Nothing at the End of the Lane script book, Farewell Great Macedon, and eagerly accepted the opportunity to contribute to the follow-up volume.

My two-page review, entitled ‘Sex Crimes’, is a fairly scathing of the dreadful sexism prevalent in the scripts. I do however praises other aspects of the story, such as continuity references to an earlier televised story, the strong characterisation of the Doctor and Jamie, and the highly imaginative opening sequence. I wrote my piece in isolation from other contributors and it wasn’t until I received a copy of the finished book that I saw that my review was one of two - the other, by Jonathan Morris, is more forgiving of the story’s shortcomings and effectively provides some balance to my criticisms. This seems to have been more good fortune than design as I gather that Jonathan was equally unaware of what I'd said in my review.

In addition to mine and Jonathan’s critiques, there is also a 'Time Team' feature in the style of Doctor Who Magazine's popular and long-running column, reuniting the original line-up of Jac Rayner, Peter Ware, Clayton Hickman and Richard Bignell - though it should perhaps be noted that Clay is suspiciously slumbering throughout the group discussion!

Also included are Brian Hayles’ original storylines for the Ice Warrior story Lords of the Red Planet, which was scrapped in favour of a different serial - The Seeds of Death.

The highlight of the supplementary material is in my opinion Andrew Pixley’s article ‘Winds of Change’ which examines month-by-month the behind-the-scenes work on the writing and production of Troughton’s turbulent final season throughout 1968.

The Prison in Space script book offers an invaluable insight into what was so very nearly a produced, televised Doctor Who story. It is available to purchase here.

21 October, 2011

The Corden Factor?

The second half of Doctor Who Series 6 has now screened in New Zealand, and overnight viewer ratings for all six of these episodes have been posted. The ratings for the top-performing programmes on each of the main television channels, as supplied by Nielsen Television Audience Measurement, are published daily on Throng.

As I've posted previously, ratings are available for the first-run screenings of each of the Matt Smith episodes. The figures show that Series 5 performed better than the first half of Series 6. Amy’s Choice topped the chart for last year's series with 146,560 viewers. This year's series opener, The Impossible Astronaut, just about matched this with 146,520.

At the other end of the scale however, no episodes from Series 5 dipped below six figures. The Beast Below was the poorest performer on 105,140. This year the ratings haven't been nearly as strong. The seasonal special A Christmas Carol, got a dismal 85,130, and The Almost People plunged even lower to 67,060. Only the opening three episodes (The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon and The Curse of the Black Spot managed six-figure ratings.

I think the later timeslot is the key contributing factor accounting for this year's under-performance. In 2010 episodes screened at 7.30, whereas this year Series 6 and the Christmas special started at 8.30 pm. This later start time not only pushed the episodes out of reach of younger viewers who could not stay up to 9.30 to see to the end of the programme, but also placed Doctor Who directly against heavy-hitting prime-time drama series on the other main channels.

That said, the ratings for this latest batch of six episodes - which continued to screen in the same Thursday 8.30 pm timeslot - are not all bad news. The opening two episodes, Let's Kill Hitler and Night Terrors, rated a respectable 117,110 and 119,850, placing them slightly ahead of several of last year's episodes. The audience dropped off for The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex, and the supposedly highly-anticipated series finale, The Wedding of River Song, which dropped to a low 80,490.

The stand-out episode was however Closing Time, which gained an astonishing rating of 171,280. This is higher than any other Matt Smith episode. Closing Time was also the top-rating programme on Prime on the day it screened. No other Matt Smith episode of Doctor Who has charted first on Prime's daily ratings.

So what compelled so many viewers to tune in for this one episode? Was it that it featured James Corden, an actor familiar to New Zealand television audiences from the oft-repeated Gavin & Stacey... or was it the return of the Cybermen? Both Corden and the Cybermen were promoted in Prime's trailer for Closing Time, screened frequently in the week leading up to the episode's showing.

Series Six Part 2:
Let’s Kill Hitler (15 September 2011): 117,110
Night Terrors (22 September 2011): 119,850
The Girl Who Waited (29 September 2011): 102,210
The God Complex (6 October 2011): 96,430
Closing Time (13 October 2011): 171,280
The Wedding of River Song (20 October 2011): 80,490

Series average: 114,562

1. Closing Time (13 October 2011): 171,280
2. Amy’s Choice (13 June 2010): 146,560
3. The Impossible Astronaut (19 May 2011): 146,520
4. Flesh and Stone (30 May 2010): 146,470
5. Cold Blood (27 June 2010): 143,270
6. The Hungry Earth (20 June 2010): 135,700
7. The Lodger (11 July 2010): 135,490
8. Vincent and the Doctor (4 July 2010): 128,950
9. The Curse of the Black Spot (2 June 2011): 126,240
10. The Pandorica Opens (18 July 2010): 120,610
11. Night Terrors (22 September 2011): 119,850
12. The Big Bang (25 July 2010): 118,220
13. Let’s Kill Hitler (15 September 2011): 117,110
14. The Time of Angels (23 May 2010): 116,710
15. The Eleventh Hour (2 May 2010): 113,000
16. Victory of the Daleks (16 May 2010): 111,930
17. The Vampires of Venice (6 June 2010): 109,500
18. The Beast Below (9 May 2010): 105,140
19. The Girl Who Waited (29 September 2011): 102,210
20. Day of the Moon (26 May 2011): 101,760
21. A Good Man Goes to War (30 June 2011): 98,790
22. The Rebel Flesh (16 June 2011): 96,580
23. The God Complex (6 October 2011): 96,430
24. The Doctor’s Wife (9 June 2011): 91,660
25. A Christmas Carol (30 January 2011): 85,130
26. The Wedding of River Song (20 October 2011): 80,490
27. The Almost People (23 June 2011): 67,060

21 September, 2011

Delivering the Book

Today I composed a short email, attached a Word document, and hit 'Send'. In doing so, I delivered the manuscript of my book to my publishers.

The Comic Strip Companion: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who in Comics 1964 – 1979 (to give the full title), has been four long years in the making. I was contracted to write it in late September 2007.

At that time I had not yet been approached to write DVD Production Information subtitles. I was still working full-time. My mum was still alive.

I finished writing the first draft back in June 2009. Since then I've been editing and revising, a process that has proved to be just as time-consuming as getting that first draft written.

I haven't kept a watch on the word count during editing, as I cut far more than I added during this phase - there's few things quite as disheartening as watching the word count plunge - so I was surprised to discover that the manuscript I delivered today was 185,676 words. That is remarkably close to what I predicted nearly three years ago: in December 2008, six months before I finished the first draft, I estimated it would come in at 185,000 words!

I've delivered the book, but it remains to be seen what my publishers make of it. I'm certain that there will be tweaks to be made based on their feedback. After four long years, it's in their hands.

Very soon I'm going to start work on the follow-up volume covering the later years of the comic strip. Hopefully this next book won't take quite so long to write!

12 August, 2011

Dalek artwork origins uncovered

I'm currently making corrections and changes to The Comic Strip Companion 1964-1979, working from notes made on the manuscript by my good friend Jon Preddle, who is the book's very first reader.

Jon's notes on the chapter covering The Daleks strip from TV Century 21 alerted me to something I'd overlooked in the manuscript. Jon writes, "I might be wrong on this, but didn’t Chris Achilleos base his Target book cover Daleks on Turner’s style?"

This sent me scurrying over to my bookshelves to check, and sure enough Jon is correct - Target novelisation cover artist Chris Achilleos didn't just base his Daleks on Ron Turner's strip illustrations - he directly copied them, and here's the evidence:


And it doesn't stop there. As Jon has since pointed out, Achilleos clearly again turned to Ron Turner's artwork for the TV Century 21 strip when he illustrated the cover for the novelisation Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks. This time, Achilleos reversed the images and altered the designs very slightly, but they are unmistakably based on Turner's artwork.

I've reversed the relevant sections of Achilleos's cover on the right for a direct comparison.

01 July, 2011

Doctor Who Viewing Figures

Thanks to Throng (which has for the past two years published online the daily viewer ratings for the top performing programmes on each of the main channels), we can get an idea of how Doctor Who has been performing on New Zealand television of late. Throng's viewer ratings come from Nielsen Television Audience Measurement.

The figures for the first half of Series 6, which finished screening yesterday, show that the series got off to a strong start with a very healthy 146,520 viewers tuning in for The Impossible Astronaut, but thereafter declined, dropping below 100 thousand viewers after the third episode, and hitting its lowest point with The Almost People which had just 67,060 viewers. The series made a strong recovery for the finale, with 98,780 viewers watching A Good Man Goes to War. Curiously the ratings follow a consistent pattern of decreasing one week and increasing the next.

Series Six:
The Impossible Astronaut (19 May 2011): 146,520
Day of the Moon (26 May 2011): 101,760
The Curse of the Black Spot (2 June 2011): 126,240
The Doctor’s Wife (9 June 2011): 91,660
The Rebel Flesh (16 June 2011): 96,580
The Almost People (23 June 2011): 67,060
A Good Man Goes to War (30 June 2011): 98,790

Series average: 104,087

So how does this compare with previous Matt Smith episodes? Here are the ratings for last year's series, as well as the Christmas special screened earlier this year.

Series Five:
The Eleventh Hour (2 May 2010): 113,000
The Beast Below (9 May 2010): 105,140
Victory of the Daleks (16 May 2010): 111,930
The Time of Angels (23 May 2010): 116,710
Flesh and Stone (30 May 2010): 146,470
The Vampires of Venice (6 June 2010): 109,500
Amy’s Choice (13 June 2010): 146,560
The Hungry Earth (20 June 2010): 135,700
Cold Blood (27 June 2010): 143,270
Vincent and the Doctor (4 July 2010): 128,950
The Lodger (11 July 2010): 135,490
The Pandorica Opens (18 July 2010): 120,610
The Big Bang (25 July 2010): 118,220

Series average: 125,504

Christmas Special:
A Christmas Carol (30 January 2011): 85,130

One conclusion that might be drawn from these figures is that Doctor Who performs better when screened earlier in the evening (Series 5 screened at 7.30pm whereas the Christmas special and Series 6 started at 8:30pm), and on Sundays (where Series 5 episodes screened) rather than Thursdays (Series 6 and the Christmas special). The lower figures might be the result of some younger viewers missing out on seeing the series on broadcast, as the later broadcast means that it is on after bedtime. It is not necessarily just the children who may account for the lower figures but also the parents who might otherwise have watched the episodes with them as a shared family viewing experience.

Taking all of the first-run Matt Smith episodes screened to date, here they are ranked by rating. The Impossible Astronaut just misses out on being the highest-rated Matt Smith episode, but by The Almost People, screened just over a month later, is the lowest.

1. Amy’s Choice (13 June 2010): 146,560
2. The Impossible Astronaut (19 May 2011): 146,520
3. Flesh and Stone (30 May 2010): 146,470
4. Cold Blood (27 June 2010): 143,270
5. The Hungry Earth (20 June 2010): 135,700
6. The Lodger (11 July 2010): 135,490
7. Vincent and the Doctor (4 July 2010): 128,950
8. The Curse of the Black Spot (2 June 2011): 126,240
9. The Pandorica Opens (18 July 2010): 120,610
10. The Big Bang (25 July 2010): 118,220
11. The Time of Angels (23 May 2010): 116,710
12. The Eleventh Hour (2 May 2010): 113,000
13. Victory of the Daleks (16 May 2010): 111,930
14. The Vampires of Venice (6 June 2010): 109,500
15. The Beast Below (9 May 2010): 105,140
16. Day of the Moon (26 May 2011): 101,760
17. A Good Man Goes to War (30 June 2011): 98,790
18. The Rebel Flesh (16 June 2011): 96,580
19. The Doctor’s Wife (9 June 2011): 91,660
20. A Christmas Carol (30 January 2011): 85,130
21. The Almost People (23 June 2011): 67,060

18 April, 2011

New Doctor Who (no spoilers!)

I saw the first two episodes of the new series of Doctor Who today, at a press preview held five days in advance of their first television broadcast anywhere in the world. The preview was put on by Prime Television, the channel which will be screening the new series when it airs in New Zealand (the start date has yet to be announced).

I've been asked not to say anything specific or to spoil any plot details (not that I would anyway, as I'd hate to have such things revealed for me if I were reading this having yet to see the episodes). So no spoilers lie ahead, I promise.

The screening was preceded with a series trailer introduced by the Doctor himself, greeting us - "Hello, New Zealand!" - from inside the TARDIS in a specially-recorded segment.

We had been advised that the episodes we watched were not the final edits, so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, has changed when the proper versions are broadcast.

This two-part story (The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon), is truly epic in scope. The twists and turns are so mind-boggling that I feel I need at least one more viewing to get everything straight in my head. It's no hyperbole to say that this is definitely one of the most complex and ambitious Doctor Who plots ever, so pay close attention, even to the smallest details.

The adventure is chillingly creepy in places, and I'm sure that certain scenes will provide potent nightmare material for younger viewers. In the fine tradition of the best Doctor Who episodes however, the chills are tempered with some moments of brilliant humour, and Matt Smith in particular gets to deliver many funny lines.

Since the 2005 revival, Doctor Who seems to have stuck to a series structure of leading with a relatively lightweight adventure followed by a gradual build-up to an epic finale. This year's series looks to be very different indeed. This story has all the feel of an epic series conclusion, and even manages to overshadow last year's The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. If this is how the new series begins, how can it possibly get bigger and more impressive from here?

The second episode ended with a series trailer showing many more scenes from upcoming episodes that do not appear in any other trailers. Judging by what I saw, we're in for a real treat this year.

Quite superb. Doctor Who is back, and in grand style. I cannot wait to see more!

PS: Many thanks to Prime for inviting me along to the preview.

13 April, 2011

Armageddon It

Rochelle and I arrived home on Monday evening after four days in Wellington. We were in the capital city for Armageddon, a comic-con style event that takes place there once each year. Rochelle runs an online sci-fi collectibles store, Retrospace, and has a stand selling her wares at each Auckland and Wellington event.

This year was the third consecutive Wellington Armageddon we’d attended as exhibitors, and by far our most successful. The success is measured not just in terms of revenue earned and volume of stock sold, but also logistically as it was the easiest and most effortless experience we've had running a Retrospace stand at Armageddon.

In past years we loaded up our vehicle with as much stock as we could possibly cram in and drove from Auckland to Wellington. This had its drawbacks as it restricted on the amount of stock we had available to sell and also meant that by the time we arrived to set up and start selling we were already shattered from a ten-hour drive, and that's not even taking into consideration the return journey.

This year Rochelle loaded the stock into two large packing crates and booked a freight company to take them down. We enjoyed a short flight from Auckland to Wellington, arriving refreshed, and ready to set up at the TSB Arena, located on the city’s scenic waterfront.

The Retrospace stand, before the doors opened on the first day.

Unlike previous Armageddon events, which had quiet periods, at this year’s event we had a fairly constant crowd of customers clustered around our stand. I believe the attendance numbers for the show were significantly up on previous years as we were hearing reports that on the Saturday people were being refused entry for a time due to overcrowding issues, and there are mutterings about needing to perhaps move to a larger venue.

While working on the stand I chatted to a wide variety of people. Some were so enthusiastic that they came dressed as their favourite character (there were quite a few Matt Smith Doctors both male and female), while at the other end of the spectrum there were those who seemed just a bit overwhelmed by it all. Some came over to chat about Doctor Who, drawn by the large array of merchandise we had displayed on our stand. I was even recognised from my appearances on the Doctor Who DVDs and a television item about Rochelle and me that screened on Close Up some weeks earlier. It seems I have my own local fan following, of sorts.

There were some interesting conversations, most memorably a debate between several teenage girls over whether David Tennant or Matt Smith was better. I ventured that I thought Smith was a slightly better actor, and got agreement from one girl, whilst another piped up that she preferred Smith because his sonic was bigger than David’s. Size, apparently, is important.

Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the crowd...

The event had an array of guests, including Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor, Doctor Who), John Leeson (Voice of K9, Doctor Who), Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica), and several others, but I didn’t get to see any of their talks. Even with the invaluable assistance of those helping us out on the stand (thank you so much, Chris, Wade and Kim), it was rarely possible to get away for any length of time. I expected a quiet period whilst Colin and John were talking on stage, but this never occurred and we continued to have people buying Doctor Who merchandise from us during that time.

I did however get to meet John Leeson, who is a really lovely man. We discovered over drinks on the Friday night that we share a few areas of common interest and experience. I was also chatted with John’s lovely wife Judy who told me all about her work as a production buyer on such films as The Hours, The Golden Compass, and Martin Scorese’s latest, Hugo Cabret. Given her impressive background in movies, I thought that Judy ought to have been a guest speaker at Armageddon herself, but she was having none of it.

His Master's Voice - John Leeson

I also got to meet a couple of the animation voice artist guests, namely the charming Paul Eiding, whom I introduced to drinking cider, and Michael Sinterniklaas, the voice of Dean in The Venture Bros, and who uncannily looks a little like his animated alter ego. Michael told me he’s been a Doctor Who fan for years, and seemed as impressed to learn that I worked on the DVDs as I was that he worked on one of my favourite animated series.

"Go Team Venture!" - myself and Michael Sinterniklaas

Roll on the next Armageddon, in Auckland in October!

31 January, 2011

Absence of Malus

I began writing production text for the BBC / 2|entertain Doctor Who DVD range two and a half years ago. Quite early on I think it must have become apparent to my commissioning editor that I have an particular affinity for the Fifth Doctor's era, because I soon found myself the go-to guy for stories from Peter Davison's third and final year. (Thankfully Warriors of the Deep was already out on DVD, as that's one story I don't regard with much enthusiasm.)

Thanks to 2|entertain deciding that they needed to commission brand new production text for special editions of two previously-released stories, I've been responsible for a straight run of five consecutive stories: The Awakening, Frontios, Resurrection of the Daleks, Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani. That's 18 episodes in total, or 7 hours, 23 minutes of viewing time. I no longer have to be cryptic about any of those titles as 2|entertain has revealed the 2011 schedule in the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine. All of the as-yet unreleased stories I've worked on are on that list. I've known for a couple of years that I was due to cover all five stories and I've gradually been working to complete that set. As of today I'm feeling a sense of accomplishment: I've just delivered the production text subtitles for The Awakening, which completes that set.

Every time I tackle one of these subtitle scripts it seems to eat up a large chunk of my life. I can't vouch for my fellow writers but it seems to take me a good couple of months to complete a four-part story, from beginning the research to finishing the scripts. Even when I'm not actually at my desk, working away on the project, it still occupies my thoughts. I always experience the mental equivalent of a great weight lifting from my shoulders when I put the finishing touches on a script and email it off to my editor on the far side of the world.

There is not much time to take a breather this time around. While I've been working away at The Awakening, other tasks have been mounting up. I've an article I've promised to write for one publication, an interview I need to edit for another, and there is also the matter of my book, which I need to get back to revising very soon.

For a long time I thought The Awakening would be my last subtitling job. It is the final Peter Davison story scheduled for DVD release, so that is 'my' era effectively done and dusted. But it now seems that my days of writing production text are not quite over yet. Mid-way though writing this latest set of subtitles, I was offered another commission. It's a completely different era of the series, of course, but I'm not about to pass up more work. So before too long I'll be immersing myself in the minutiae of another Doctor Who story. Maybe this one will be my last? Who knows!

Oh, and if you think the title of this post is a dreadful pun, wait until you see how The Awakening was going to end before the final scene was rewritten!