27 September, 2013

I made it through the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 September, 2013

Scream of the Shalka DVD Production Subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 August, 2013

Poll Result

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

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

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

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

18 July, 2013

Written out of History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 April, 2013

Award Nomination

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

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

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

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

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

The full list of nominations can be found here.

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

20 April, 2013

A Flawed History Lesson

Marking Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary is a monthly comic called Prisoners of Time, published by IDW, featuring a story for each of the eleven Doctors. At the back of each issue is a series of features on the history of Doctor Who in comics by various writers. 

Issue 4 (April 2013) has a two-page history of the comics from the beginning up to the present day, laid out as a series of panels with comic strip-style captions. The “history lesson on how it all came to be” (as it is headed) is presented by Dez Skinn, the man who devised Doctor Who Weekly in 1979. Skinn's own contribution to the history of the comic strip is immense; his legacy is still going strong today, as Panini's Doctor Who Magazine.

It is a shame therefore that certain aspects of this history are not particularly accurate. Some of the facts pertaining to the early years of the comic strip, prior to Dez Skinn’s involvement in 1979, are simply wrong - especially in relation to TV Comic, a publication that Skinn does not appear hold in high regard.

I want to be clear that my intention here is not to criticize Skinn, or to imply that he somehow deliberately set out to mislead. I'm simply keen to set the record straight on the subject. It does strike me as odd that no one seems to have fact-checked the piece (having written a book on this very subject, I'd have gladly offered my services).

The earliest error is to do with the television series rather than the comic strip. Discussing the beginnings of the series, Skinn states that An Unearthly Child, the opening story, was up against ITV’s The Buccaneers. In fact the first five episodes were screened against the ABC serial Emerald Soup. The Buccaneers appeared against Doctor Who on ATV London from 28 December 1963, one week into the second story.

The history then claims that The Dalek Book came out only five months after the Daleks made their television debut. This is a forgivable error, as many sources have wrongly stated that this book was published on 30 June 1964 (which is five months after the conclusion of The Daleks). It was only whilst researching The Comic Strip Companion that I learned that the book was in fact published later, on 30 September 1964. This long-standing misapprehension most likely originated because someone got one digit in the date wrong: ‘30/9/64’ became ‘30/6/64’.

This dating error has a knock-on effect when Skinn subsequently observes that the Doctor Who strip in TV Comic began "five months later". In fact The Dalek Book only preceded the TV Comic strip by about six weeks.

Perhaps the most egregious error in the whole feature is the suggestion that TV Comic did not mention the strip on the cover when it first appeared. This is plainly wrong. The first issue to feature the Doctor Who strip was #674, dated 14 November 1964. The cover of that issue clearly states: "Starts today! Doctor Who" (pictured here).

The history compounds the error by including the wrong TV Comic cover (the issue featured in the history is #709, dated 17 July 1965 - eight months later - which did not have a mention of Doctor Who).

Skinn offers the view that the strip wasn't mentioned on the cover "... maybe because they weren’t very good". That may be Skinn's opinion, but I have examined a great deal of correspondence between the BBC and the publishers of TV Comic from 1964, and there is no suggestion that the strip wasn't considered worthy of promotion. Four of the initial nine issues featuring Doctor Who have a reference to the strip on the front cover, so TV Comic could hardly be accused of failing to promote its new acquisition. Skinn makes no mention of the five month period in 1967 when the Doctor Who strip appeared in full colour on the front cover of every issue of TV Comic

The history goes on to mention The Daleks comic strip, which began in 1965. Skinn claims that the strip appeared in “TV 21”, but the comic was actually called TV Century 21. TV21 was the name given to a later relaunch of the comic in early 1968, two years after The Daleks strip ceased publication. This is an error that crops up in various places.

Another minor error involves the dating of the first World Distributors Doctor Who annual. It is claimed that it was launched for Christmas 1966, but the first annual came out a year earlier.

The history discusses the strip’s move to Countdown which later became TV Action, and states that the comic had "130 weekly issues". This is almost but not quite right: there were 132 issues.

Lastly, Skinn dismisses the later years of the TV Comic strip, claiming that with the arrival of the fourth Doctor the comic “simply ran reprints of Jon Pertwee strips with Tom Baker's face added!" There were indeed reprinted stories with Tom Baker’s features redrawn over Pertwee (and Patrick Troughton in one instance), but what Skinn doesn't mention is that this only happened in the weekly TV Comic issues for nine months from July 1978 through to the strip’s last appearance in March 1979. The history overlooks the three and a half years (a considerably longer period) prior to this when original, weekly Tom Baker strips were run in TV Comic.

I think it is clear that Skinn has a low opinion of the Doctor Who strip in TV Comic. He observes that TV Comic's license for “two reprint pages” prevented him from launching his own Doctor Who comic strip publication "for years". Presumably he is unaware that TV Comic only moved to running a reprinted Doctor Who comic strip in their weekly issues after the publishers had advised BBC Enterprises in May 1978 that they intended to quit the licence. The catalyst for this decision was probably the recent raising of the royalty rate for the strip that TV Comic was required to pay to the BBC. The timing of the strip’s last appearance in May 1979 suggests that it is likely that TV Comic may have been contractually required to give one year’s notice. If so, the very reprint strips that so irked Skinn were likely a portent that the licence was about to become available, paving the way for October 1979's triumphant launch of Doctor Who Weekly.

It is good to see that the long and fascinating history of the Doctor Who comic strip is receiving coverage with these features in the Prisoners of Time series. It is just a shame that in the case of this instalment the facts have not been accurately presented.

16 March, 2013

The Origin of The Vampire Plants

'The Vampire Plants' is a six-page Doctor Who comic strip featuring Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. It first appeared in The Dr Who Annual for 1970 (published in 1969), and was later reprinted in the omnibus collection Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space in 1981.

A synopsis for 'The Vampire Plants' follows:
The Doctor receives a message from his old friend Dr Vane and arrives on Venus, where Vane has experimental botanical gardens. The Doctor leaves Zoe behind in the TARDIS but takes Jamie with him to visit Vane. Vane is troubled by the recent mysterious disappearance of a newly-discovered plant, the galea tentipocus, found in the Galea galaxy. Vane’s assistant, Regan, is tasked with finding the thieves believed to have stolen the plant. Regan finds the tree in the wilderness but it grabs him and shoves him off a cliff. The injured Regan is looked after by Vane while the Doctor and Jamie go in search of the plant and discover that it has grown to an enormous size. It traps the pair in its branches. The Doctor has the idea of setting fire to the grass, and they escape from the plant’s clutches as it is engulfed in flames.
 When I reviewed this story in The Comic Strip Companion I observed that the comic strip was: “… a brazen recycling of the idea behind ‘Freedom by Fire’ from the previous year’s annual…” A few months after my book was published I became aware that 'The Vampire Plants' strip was actually an example of even more “brazen recycling” from an entirely different source.

Spaceman: Comic of the Future was a British science fiction comic that premiered around March 1953 and lasted for 15 issues. One of the ongoing strips in this short-lived comic was a series of stories featuring a character called Bill Merrill, who worked for the Scientific Investigation Bureau.

One of the Bill Merrill stories published in Spaceman was ‘Rockingham's Tree’. This was an eight-page, black and white comic strip.

A synopsis for 'Rockingham's Tree' follows: 
Bill Merrill and Velma, members of the Scientific Investigation Bureau, learn of the discovery by Professor Rockingham of a tree on Mercury. He has brought the Mercurian Tree, as it is called, it to Earth and puts it on public display in his botanical gardens in England. Over night however the gardens’ nightwatchman is killed and the tree goes missing. Merrill, Velma and Rockingham investigate the mystery. A butterfly collector, Colonel Butterworth, finds the tree in the countryside. The tree grabs the colonel and shoves him over a cliff. Butterworth survives the fall and relates his story to Merrill and his team. The Bureau begin a search of the countryside but a year passes before the tree is located in Epping Forest. Merrill, Velma and Rockingham race to the forest and discover that the tree has grown to an enormous size. It traps the trio in its branches. Merrill has the idea of setting fire to the grass, and they escape from the trees’ clutches as it is engulfed in flames.
The descriptions of these two comic strip stories share some remarkable points of similarity, but a comparison of the artwork removes any lingering doubt that the Bill Merrill story was indeed the source of the Doctor Who strip.

The similarities first start to emerge on the third page of the Bill Merrill strip (top) and the second of the Doctor Who story (bottom). The Nightwatchman, seen in the original is replaced by Dr. Vane, in the exact same pose, and the plant/tree gets a name-change, but other than that the artwork is very similar indeed.

The next page in both strips has three panels with features common to both strips. In the first of these panels, the body of the Nightwatchman is removed (no one dies in the Doctor Who version); Rockingham becomes Dr. Vane (complete with same hands-on-hips pose); lastly Bill Merrill is removed from the picture, and the Doctor is added.

This is the very next panel in both versions. Rockingham is removed and Merrill is replaced by the Doctor, situated on the opposite side of the panel.

Colonel Butterworth the butterfly hunter from the original strip becomes Vane’s assistant Regan in the later version, armed with a stick rather than a butterfly net. Note that the plant has added suckers in the Doctor Who version that are not present in the original.

Moving on to a new page in both versions, the sequence continues with the tree / plant breaking the butterfly net / stick.

Butterworth / Regan is then seized by the tree / plant…

… and falls off a cliff.

A jump ahead in both stories brings us to the beginning of the final confrontation with the tree / plant. In the original Bill Merrill, Velma and Rockingham discover the tree, whereas in the redrawn version Jamie and the Doctor are seen encountering the enormous plant.

The final page of both strips, showing just how closely the composition of the panels, as well as the artwork, was copied. Only the first and last panels on each version are entirely different.

There is no doubt that 'The Vampire Plants' story was adapted from the Bill Merrill strip. But how and why did this occur? 

Was this blatant plagiarism, or was the Doctor Who strip developed with the consent of the creator of the original story? Was the unidentified artist responsible for 'The Vampire Plants' perhaps the same person who drew the Bill Merrill strip and therefore was simply adapting his own work?

The Bill Merrill series was created by Ron Embleton very early in his career. Embleton later became established as a prolific and acclaimed British comic strip illustrator. The Doctor Who strip however looks nothing like the work Embleton was producing in the 1960s.  There is also some doubt over whether Embleton was responsible for drawing the 'Rockingham’s Tree' story. This might have been the work of another artist.

Unfortunately the revelation of the source of 'The Vampire Plants' strip alas brings us no closer to identifying the artist or indeed the writer of that story. 

If anyone can shed any further light on this, I'd love to hear from them.

With grateful thanks to Lee Moone for the 'Rockingham's Tree' strip and Shaqui Le Vesconte for additional input.