18 November, 2020

Excavating Battlefield

Doctor Who: The Collection - Season 26 blu-ray set was released in January 2020. I was commissioned to write the production information text for the season's opening story, Battlefield.

Battlefield was my eleventh set of production info text, and the third for ‘The Collection’ blu-ray boxed sets. My previous blu-ray work included Earthshock and The Trial of a Time Lord. The latter was a collaboration with another writer on all 14 episodes that consumed a great deal of time throughout the first quarter of 2019. Following that experience, I welcomed the prospect of working on a story with fewer episodes and comparatively untroubled production development. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to continue to do this work without having to venture beyond my home in Auckland, New Zealand.

Battlefield holds a special place in my memories. I first saw the story one Saturday afternoon in early October 1989 in the company of a small group of fan friends. An off-air VHS recording of all four episodes had arrived that morning via airmail from the UK (ten days after it was broadcast). During the preceding two years I had been watching VHS recordings of Doctor Who that had yet to screen in New Zealand but always by borrowing the tapes from friends after they had already watched them. Battlefield marked the first time that all of us watched Doctor Who for the first time together.

Whereas the last time I’d seen Battlefield was in 2008 when it was released on DVD. In early April 2019 when I started work on Battlefield, I hadn’t watched the story in over a decade. I was therefore coming to it with relatively fresh eyes. On my first run through in preparation for writing the info text, I made notes on anything I spotted that might be worth covering in the subtitles.

The story is loaded with references to Arthurian legends of course, which would all need to be explained, but there are also numerous call-backs to the series’ own mythology with the return of UNIT, Bessie, and Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart.

While I needed to explain the numerous bits of Arthurian lore that crop up in Battlefield, I didn’t want to spend more time than was necessary on researching this complex topic, especially given the relatively limited space available to me in the info text. My university degree in the 1980s had included a paper on early English history which gave me a basic understanding of the subject, but I needed to read up on the details. 

There are many contradictory versions of the legends of Arthur. Battlefield doesn’t follow one text but rather borrows bits and pieces from a wide variety of different sources. I was delighted to find in the stacks at my local library a copy of The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J. Lacy, which documents the origins of the various fragments of the legend, helpfully arranged by topic. This was invaluable as Battlefield scriptwriter Ben Aaronovitch was on record as having used Lacy’s book for research. The library’s copy was a revised and updated edition from the 1990s. Curiously, one of the additions is a write-up about Battlefield in a section about the depiction of Arthurian legend in television series. (The authors seem to have been unaware that one of Aaronovitch’s sources was close to home.)

The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J. Lacy (1996).


During my initial watch-through something that caught my attention was a scene in the first episode where Elizabeth Rowlinson (played by June Bland) is sitting in the bar of the Gore Crow hotel reading a book written in braille. Thanks to the improved picture definition, it was possible to make out sections of the braille text. My expectation was that it was just a random publication that the BBC happened to have in their prop stores. What was the book? I couldn’t find anything about Battlefield that answered this question. The script’s directions simply note that Elizabeth is reading ‘a braille book’.

Despite being able to make out parts of the braille text I didn’t have any success trying to decipher it using translation websites. I then sent an email to the Blind Foundation of New Zealand asking for help. I promptly received a reply from Maria Stevens, the Foundation’s Accessible Formats Manager. Maria examined the screenshots I sent her and was able to interpret a few short fragmentary phrases from the text (for example: “…high in a stone of marble…”; “… this, he blessed him and said, …”). These were enough to positively identify the text. Remarkably, it wasn't just some random braille book but Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D'Arthur and had therefore been specially selected to fit the story’s subject. It’s the discovery of brand new, hitherto undocumented facts like this that is for me the single most exciting aspect of the job.

Elizabeth Rowlinson (June Bland) reads the opening sentences of Book IV, Chapter VIII  of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.

Having researched many 1980s episodes there was something slightly poignant about getting to write about the last on-screen appearance of the 1983-89 version of the TARDIS console room. In doing so, I got to debunk a commonly repeated misconception about this scene. It is often suggested in articles about the story that the room is in darkness to help disguise the fact that the usually rigid walls have been replaced with a cloth cyclorama, but in fact this lighting effect is specified in the script.

In earlier drafts of the script, Peter Warmsly is accompanied by a large, slobbering dog. The animal, written out before production commenced, was called Cerebus. At first glance, the name looked to be a typographical error. In Greek mythology, the dog ‘Cerberus’ guards the entrance to the underworld, whereas ‘Cerebus’ is an aardvark from the titular comic strip. If this was a typographical error it was a remarkably consistent one, as the name remained the same throughout the scripts. I decided that as with other instances in the story (Avallion for Avalon, for example), the name was likely intended as a variation on a commonly accepted spelling. Curiously, Marc Platt’s novelisation reinstates the dog and names him Cerberus, so perhaps it was a misspelling after all.

Another head-scratching moment comes when the Doctor orders a drink of water from the hotel bar. There’s an unscripted moment of business when Sylvester McCoy holds up his glass and scrutinizes its contents before taking a drink. My initial interpretation was that it is a response to a line earlier in the same scene about the hotel’s beer getting an entry in the CAMRA guide. McCoy is making a visual joke out of treating the water with the same level of appraisal that might be accorded to Arthur’s Ale. My editor suggested an entirely different take on this, however, proposing that it was instead a topical reference to concerns over contamination of drinking water which was a major issue in 1989. Fortunately, there was enough time on screen at this point to offer both explanations.

The Doctor scrutinizes his drink.

A criticism frequently levelled at the story is the sequence where the armoured Ancelyn is blown straight up in the air by a grenade and crashes through the wall of the hotel’s barn. This looks absurd, but an examination of the scripts reveals that this would have made sense if the script directions had been followed. As written, the knights including Ancelyn were envisioned as wearing technologically advanced armour, perhaps not unlike that of Iron Man. On screen the knights are instead dressed in traditional medieval-style armour. If Ancelyn had been wearing powered armour that gave him the ability to fly, then the oft-mocked sequence makes a great deal more sense. A remnant of this original intention makes it into the finished story’s dialogue when Ace asks, “Is it an android?” when first sighting Ancelyn in his armour.

The knight Ancelyn (Marcus Gilbert) in his decidedly not technologically-advanced-looking armour.

Another example of a lack of attention paid to script directions comes in the sequence when Mordred (Christopher Bowen) conducts the ritual to summon Morgaine (Jean Marsh) from another dimension. He lights up an eight-sided shape on the ground. This was meant to have been an octagram, an eight-pointed star sometimes used to invoke magic. Due to an apparent misreading, the shape was instead realised as an octagon!

Octagram, not octagon!

Part of the brief for the info text is to cover the career highlights of key cast members. Researching the cast for this story yielded some interesting details, such as the fact that two of its actors later auditioned for the role of the Eighth Doctor, and another went on to a prestigious directing career working on such programmes as Luther, Being Human, and Fear the Walking Dead. It was a sobering moment while researching the career of Dorota Rae, the Polish actress who plays the UNIT helicopter pilot Lavel, to discover that she had died mere months earlier.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I like to slip a mention of New Zealand into the subtitles. Obviously, there needs to be a justifiable, legitimate reason for doing so. Battlefield is the third story in which I’ve managed to do this. According to the script, Ace was to have disparagingly referred to the Brigadier as “Colonel Blimp”, which allowed me to explain that the 1930s cartoon character was the creation of New Zealander David Low, for London’s Evening Standard.

The Doctor’s speech about the horrors of nuclear war presented an opportunity to do something creative with the subtitles. The scene features shots of a countdown display showing the seconds remaining until destruction. In an early edit of the recorded material, McCoy's speech was reduced in length, removing around 13 seconds. The cut meant however that the counter was no longer in synch. 

Watching the clock!

The production documentation shows that this had not escaped the attention of producer John Nathan-Turner, who wrote to director Michael Kerrigan advising that this was something that needed to be fixed. “Whenever we have countdowns on Doctor Who, our younger viewers tend to count with the clock,” Nathan-Turner wrote. “If the little horrors are counting then they should reach number 1 at the same time as our visuals.” Kerrigan fixed this by replacing the shots of the counter. Inspired by Nathan-Turner’s words, my subtitles invite viewers to count along. Is the countdown timed correctly though? Try it and find out!

An earlier version of this article was first published in issue 510 of Celestial Toyroom, the fanzine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.

06 April, 2020

About a Book

This piece originally appeared in Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who. I wrote it shortly after my Mum, Janet Elayne Scoones, died on 6 April 2010. I've republished it here to mark the tenth anniversary of her passing. Miss you, Mum.

It is 1975.

I’m seven years old, sitting on the step that connects the living room at the front of our house to the passage at the rear. Mum comes over and says that she has a book for me.

It is a Doctor Who book, with a man, a dinosaur, a terrifying-looking lizard man and an exploding volcano on the cover.

I know a bit about Doctor Who. It is a mysterious and scary television programme I’ve recently seen for the first time. Mum likes Doctor Who. She grew up watching the show. It’s okay to be scared when Doctor Who is on because she watches with me.

Mum bought the book for herself but after reading thought I might like it. I’ve never read a book this long before. There are some pictures to help explain things, but most pages just have words and the writing looks tiny.

On the back of the book Mum has neatly crossed out a single word with a black felt-tipped pen: 

“… Tyrannosaurus rex, the biggest, most savage mammal which ever trod the earth!” 

Whoever wrote that got it wrong, Mum tells me. Dinosaurs were not mammals. 

Mum thinks I should try reading the book by myself. If Mum thinks I can do it, I must be able to.

I start reading, trying to finish a chapter a day. I take the book to school. I read it during lunchtime in the classroom on a rainy day while eating peanut butter sandwiches. The story is enthralling and terrifying in equal measure.

The bit with Morka watching Fur Under Nose, Frock Coat and Silver Buttons is odd and unfathomable. Major Barker and Masters getting sick and succumbing to a deadly virus is terrifying. I read the book through again, several times.

Soon after, I discover that my local library has other Doctor Who books. I read them all. I’m well and truly hooked.

It is 2010.

I’m 42 years old, standing in front of a group of mourners who have gathered to remember and farewell Mum.

I speak of how Mum inspired me to set out on the journey that led to where I am now. My life-long fascination with Doctor Who has led to professional work associated with the series. I am a freelance writer, working for the BBC on production notes subtitles for the DVDs and writing a book about the comic strips.

It all started with my Mum and a book called Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters.

Originally published in Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, edited by Steve Berry (Matador, 2012, reissued by Gollancz, 2013).

31 March, 2020

Unearthing Earthshock

Doctor Who: The Collection - Season 19 blu-ray set was released in December 2018. I was commissioned to write the production information text for the season's penultimate story, Earthshock.

Eight minutes into the second episode of Earthshock, there’s a continuity error hidden in plain sight. It’s initially on screen for just four seconds and reappears in four even shorter shots over the next half-minute. Blink and you might miss it.

The Cybermen have remotely-activated their bomb hidden in the caves on Earth. The Doctor is inside the TARDIS frantically working to block the signal to prevent the bomb’s detonation. The tension mounts as the action cuts back and forth between the TARDIS, the Cybermen and the bomb.

But wait - there’s something not quite right about that bomb. Perched on top of the device is the magnetic clamp device from the TARDIS toolkit. An item that the Doctor is seen fixing to the top of the bomb just after the nine-minute mark. A full minute after it is first seen sitting on top of the bomb!

The Cyber bomb, with the Doctor's magnetic clamp in place on top.

Later, the Doctor places the clamp on the bomb.

I’ve viewed Earthshock a lot over the past three and a half decades. I think it’s one of Peter Davison’s best stories. Each time I've watched, the mistake with the bomb has completely passed me by. As it undoubtedly did for the production crew at the time and has subsequently done for countless viewers. I checked reference books, magazines and websites that contain lists of such things, and not one of them makes a mention of this error.

I only noticed it because I was paying exceptionally close attention to the story. I was making notes for the production information text commentary (or ‘info text’) I wrote for the Season 19 blu-ray set in 2018.

Info text is just one of the many special features included on the ‘classic’ series Doctor Who blu-rays, and the DVDs before them. The text appears on screen as subtitles, but rather than transcribed dialogue it provides a commentary about the story’s production. The text points out pertinent, specific details about moments in the episodes as they appear, as well as general information about how, when and where the story was made.

With all of the entertaining special features on the wonderful new blu-ray sets, the info text tends to get a bit overlooked. Which is a shame, because this feature delivers a lot of interesting new information that you won't find elsewhere.

In some cases, the text that originally appeared on the DVDs has undergone only minor revisions for the blu-ray collections, but certain stories have been given brand new info text subtitles. The Season 19 blu-ray has new info text for three stories: Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid and Earthshock. I was commissioned to write the text for the Cyberman story.

I previously worked on the Doctor Who DVDs, writing info text for eight stories released in the latter half of the range. I mainly covered 1980s stories. I’m particularly interested in this decade of Doctor Who as a researcher and as a fan of the series. When the DVD range wound down around 2013, I thought that I’d written my last lot of info text. I was surprised and delighted to be invited back to work on the blu-rays.

I approached Earthshock with a little trepidation. It had been five years since I’d last written a set of info text, and I had to re-familiarise myself with what was involved in the process. I was aware too that the story didn’t appear to have gone through any significant alterations during its development. I’d never before worked on a story with such a close match between what appears in the rehearsal scripts and on-screen. There were no early script drafts or major rewrites, and no deleted scenes. Such material offers a wealth of detail to discuss in the info text. Part of the challenge I faced with Earthshock was to find other aspects to discuss in the subtitles.

The work involves viewing the story with fresh eyes. I work using timecoded copies of the episodes in order to specify the exact moment a subtitle appears and disappears on screen. Because of the precision involved in placing subtitles around shot changes, my preferred approach (which I must add isn’t necessarily that used by other info text writers), is to start with a slow, close watch through each episode noting down the exact timecode (measured in 25ths of a second), when each new shot commences. Earthshock has an exceptional number of these per episode, ranging between 167 shots (for Part One) and 245 shots (for Part Two). It takes me most of a day to work through a single episode. I’m not just noting down timecodes. I also use this slow-time viewing to annotate a copy of the script with any observations that I think are worthy of inclusion in the info text. The benefit to this stop-start scrutiny is that otherwise overlooked details, such as the aforementioned continuity error with the bomb, tend to spring into focus.

It was while doing this slow watch-through that I noticed an error with the life form scanner that appears in Part One. While Lieutenant Scott and his party are exploring the caves, on the surface Walters is tasked with monitoring their progress. Each individual is represented by a dot of light, which winks out when that person is killed. When first seen, the screen shows a cluster of 13 dots, representing Professor Kyle, Lieutenant Scott and eleven troopers. Over the course of the episode smaller groups split off and are picked off by the androids, so the display changes accordingly. There are however a couple of shots of the scanner where the dots don’t correspond to the number of troopers. The number drops by two when there is no reason in the story for this change, and afterwards the scanner screen is once again displaying the correct number of dots.

Count the dots... there ought to be 11 in the cluster at the top right of the picture, but only 9 are displayed.

Those dots, when displaying correctly, are an accurate reflection of how many troopers are present in the story. By comparing various items of production paperwork, I was able to determine that there are 14 in total. Unusually for this era of Doctor Who, it’s an evenly balanced group, with an equal number of men and women. The cast lists initially caused some confusion, as they included six credited and 11 uncredited performers playing the troopers, making a total of 17. The reason for this became clear when I discovered that three of the walk-ons had to be replaced during production.

The troopers wear name tags on their uniforms but in all but a few cases, we don’t get a clear enough look at these tags to see make out the names. Most of the group never take their helmets off so it’s difficult to tell them apart. Some are named in the credits, and others are identified in dialogue, but a few remained nameless. Thanks to a scene breakdown document that lists the characters involved in each scene, however, I was able to put names to all of the troopers. New Fact! The non-speaking female trooper who goes to the freighter is called Austin.

Trooper Austin (left) played by Nikki Dunsford, seen here with Lieutenant Scott (James Warwick).

On the subject of unnamed characters, what about the Captain, memorably played by Beryl Reid. What’s her name? She's called Briggs in the script and on the closing credits, but that name never appears in the story itself. There’s evidence too that the story's writer Eric Saward might have had another name in mind for the Captain. At one point in Part Two, a scripted direction intended for Briggs instead refers to her as ‘Stien’. It seems likely that in the original version of the script this was the Captain’s name and this solitary mention was overlooked in revisions. Saward clearly liked the name enough to reuse it in Resurrection of the Daleks. In Part Three, there’s also evidence that the Captain may have originally been male, as the Cyber Lieutenant says ‘his’ rather than ‘hers’, a mistake in the script that wasn’t picked up on during production.

The unnamed Captain Briggs (Beryl Reid), or should that be Captain Stien?
The scripts also helped to get to the bottom of an anecdote concerning a familiar Doctor Who catch-phrase that first crops up in Earthshock. The Doctor’s “Brave heart, Tegan” interested me because in a 1984 interview for Doctor Who Magazine, Eric Saward claimed that “Brave heart” was something spontaneously ad-libbed by Peter Davison during the recording of the scene. The memory clearly cheats, as the line’s already present in the rehearsal script, prepared before the cast began work on the story!

Another Tegan-related phrase, “I’m just a mouth on legs”, stumped me. According to various sources, including most recently the Doctor Who – The Complete History partwork, this phrase was included in the story after an American fan had used it to describe Tegan. This struck me as unlikely given that fandom had only recently seen Tegan on screen for the first time when Earthshock was written. I checked with a number of people who were likely to be in the know, including Janet Fielding herself, but no one knew the answer. The info text must be as accurate as possible so, as I was unable to verify this particular claim, you won’t find it in the subtitles.

Researching info text can be an eye-opening experience. I go into each story thinking I already know it well, but after a close rewatch, and reading through the scripts and the production paperwork, I realise that I’ve learned so much more. The most enjoyable aspect of my work on the info text is getting to point out fresh discoveries to viewers. There’s a lot about Earthshock I haven’t touched on here, so pop in the blu-ray, turn on the info text and find out more!

This article was first published in issue 498 of Celestial Toyroom, the fanzine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.