About this blog

This is the official blog of Phoenix Roleplaying, a multi-genre simming site, created in August 2010.

Run by the players, we hope to achieve great things.

Where our journey takes us, who knows.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Not quite Fiendishly Good, but heading there (Review: 'Doctor Who', "The Ghosts of N-Space", 1996)

 

 

Unlike in the US, the tradition of audio drama continues in the UK, with large numbers of them produced every year by the BBC, mostly airing on BBC Radio 4. Colin Baker did a Doctor Who audio in 1986 called “Slipback” (which I’m going to review) and Jon Pertwee did two before his death in 1996.

 

I’m reviewing the second one, “The Ghosts of N-Space” (broadcast in January and February 1996) as part of my Eleven Faces of Who series, being the first of my two Pertwee works. This was written by former producer Barry Letts and directed by Phil Clarke.

 

It’s a lot better than the Argo Tom Baker one that's for sure.

 

Summary

 

The Brigadier’s Sicilian uncle is concerned about ghosts in his ancient castle off the south of Italy and asks his nephew over to take a look. The Brig calls in the Doctor. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane Smith is in Sicily with inept photographer Jeremy Fitzoliver, on holiday (no not that kind of holiday) to try and write a novel as no-one is accepting her stories about travelling with the Doctor. She sees the Brig and follows him to Mario’s island. As they investigate, they discover a history-spanning plot by an evil sorcerer to access a mysterious spectral dimension called N-Space, while a metal-armed Mafia boss is trying to acquire the property from Mario with menaces.

 

Plot

 

This is a 6x25 minute tale i.e. a six-parter classic Who story, with cliff-hangers and so-on. There don’t appear to be any reprises, but these might have been edited out of the CD release – this story probably needed to have them kept to be fully understandable. Some of the resolutions to the cliff-hangers are a bit poor all in all.

 

This is a multi-setting story, set on the same island in 1504, 1818 and 1975, with the Doctor and SJS travelling between the times (and N-space) as the story goes on. There’s more TARDIS scenes here than in some whole seasons and the whole concept is one that DW does too rarely in my humble opinion.

 

The plot involving “ghosts” and alchemy takes a while to get going, while the Mafia side-plot actually is relevant. Ultimately it all comes together in the final part, but there is quite a bit of unnecessary padding and Sarah Jane pretends to be a boy, which is frankly unbelievable [Bob. – Ed]. Some distinctive pseudo-science turns up here and my notes reflect my wondering if the method of entering N-Space wasn’t in fact The Rite of AskhEnte. There’s also a strong Catholic air to this tale – N-space is Purgatory to a great extent – and we even have the Inquisition turn up. I wasn’t expecting them… [You’re this close to being fired – Ed.]

 

I would make a further note here that there is no watershed on BBC radio and some strong language features in this.

 

Sound design

 

Superb – the BBC have a long history of radio drama and there is very little to fault with it. It’s clear from  the plot that the BBC would never be able to do many key parts of this tale on television (even now you’d have problems with the budget), but you’re brought into it. The commentary by the characters that is a requirement for this medium isn’t too forced.

 

One noticeable oddity here. Peter Howell does the incidental music for this one – and this has his theme arrangement in it. This is a bit odd to begin with, but it grows on you and there’s not too much of the music in here.

 

The regulars

 

In a way, there’s a certain sadness to this tale – all three stars are now in the next world.

 

·         The Third Doctor: This is Jon Pertwee’s final appearance as the Third Doctor (final released one at any rate) and he does the job wonderfully, carrying the role off with just the right combination of haughtiness, flair and alien behaviour. Sarah Jane even is regaled with her own version of the “flower story” from “Frontier in Space”.

·         Sarah Jane Smith: Lis Sladen here is playing an earlier version of the character, not the more mature one of later years. While she does a good job, her material isn’t as good as it could be and she at times comes across a bit ineffectual.

·         The Brigadier: Nick Courtney turns in another fine performance as the UNIT commander (although the rest of UNIT doesn’t appear). He demonstrates fine leadership, a distinct unflappability and a general “Oh, really Doctor?” attitude that makes his character so well-loved.

 

The guest cast

 

This is a full cast audio drama. Main villainy duty goes to Stephen Thorne, who has experience in powerful and demonic for this ‘verse and turns in a reasonable performance here, in more than one role. Even if the Mafia boss is straight out of Central Casting.

 

The rest of the guest cast are a bit more uneven. Mario is stereotyped and hard to understand, the Mafia guys are just as stereotyped and the gangster’s girlfriend character Maggie not only sounds like Trillian from the TV version of THHGTTG, she’s actually played by Sandra Dickinson (who did that role, was born in the USA and is also Georgia Moffett’s mother). One guest character is ultimately not necessary to the plot.

 

Jeremy Fitzoliver deserves special mention. The character is deliberately clumsy and ineffectual, only doing two actually good things on his own. If the aim was to get me to dislike him, it clearly worked.

 

Conclusions

 

Well above average, but this would have been even better in five parts and with some less clich├ęd guest characters.

 

7/10

Monday, 27 August 2012

'Doctor Who' Season 16 (1978/9): Six Faces of Adventure

The Doctor wonders if he should move a certain something one foot to the left

 

Season 16 would be another difficult one for the Graham Williams/Anthony Read partnership. In fact, the script editor left after this run. There were further industrial relations problems at the BBC (the first story’s production featured a demarcation dispute over whose job it was to light the flaming torches on set) as Britain was hit by the Winter of Discontent, with widespread strikes, most notably among refuse collectors and undertakers, ultimately forcing the minority government of Jim Callaghan out of office in a no confidence vote – the subsequent election was won by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.

 

Tom Baker almost left the show – he wanted more control over the creative direction of Doctor Who, which Williams (who felt Baker had been there too long) was not prepared to grant. Eventually, the whole thing was sorted by Head of Drama Graeme McDonald bringing the two parties together – Baker signed a new contract, not getting any of his demands.

 

In addition, Baker managed to provoke a dog owned by a guest star into biting him on the lip during a gap between filming of the first story, “The Ribos Operation” – the injury is visible for a number of episodes of the run and he had to wear a plaster for publicity photos.

 

Not only that, Williams was implementing his planned season-long arc, for what was going to be the 15th anniversary season, which meant a lot of planning and a bit less flexibility in running order if a story ran into problems.

 

In comparison, the incident during “The Power of Kroll” involving a bunch of nearly naked guys having to either take chemical showers at RAF Bentwaters[1] or have their skin scoured at a hotel to remove waterproof green make up (because the make-up artist forgot to order the removal stuff) was light relief.


Season 16’s overall arc involved something called “The Key to Time”. A powerful being – in fact more powerful than the Time Lords, called the White Guardian tasked the Doctor with finding the six segments of a mythic artefact that could control the universe. The Key to Time needed to be put back together to allow for balance to be restored to the cosmos… and kept out of the hands of the evil Black Guardian. The segments were disguised as various objects and the Doctor was given a Tracer device (an expensive and prone to breaking prop) to track the segments, then convert them into their proper form. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal what the segments are here.

 

The Doctor couldn’t do this solely with a robot dog (even though the K9 prop was upgraded to make it more reliable), so the White Guardian impersonated the Time Lord President and brought a young (by Time Lord standards) Time Lady from Gallifrey to assist the Doctor. The original plan had been to bring Lis Sladen back as Sarah Jane Smith, but she declined the offer, hence a new and highly memorable companion arrived…

 

Book Smart Beauty – Romana I

 

Romanadvoratelundar, or Romana for short (it was that or “Fred”) is one of the best-loved companions in DW, spoken of in the same breath as Sarah Jane, Jo or Ace. In her first incarnation,  Romana was a Grace Kelly[2]-style ‘ice queen’, bright, haughty and lacking in practical experience of the universe. She was also a superb dresser, although high heels aren’t always best in this gig and even the Doctor noted her attractiveness.

 

The choice out of three thousand applicants for the new role was Yorkshire-born Mary Tamm (1950-2012). Tamm, of Russian and Estonian descent[3], had come to prominence through appearing in The ODESSA File[4] and The Likely Lads. Tamm was highly popular, but was initially reluctant as she didn’t want to be another damsel in distress. In the end, she chose to leave after one season as the character went that way in her opinion.

 

Following Doctor Who, Tamm appeared in a whole lot of guest roles, some films (including one that saw her killed off by Sylvester McCoy) and even computer games, appearing in video for Privateer 2: The Awakening. She recorded a chunk of Big Finish, including a series of audios with Tom Baker, that will be released in 2013.

 

Mary Tamm died of cancer in July 2012, aged 61. This sad news for the fandom was made more tragic when her husband Marcus Ringrose suffered a fatal heart attack a few hours after her funeral.


This was yet another six story, 26-episode run. While the Key to Time hunt plays a role throughout the season, each serial can be watched on its own without too many problems. The stories are a bit less jokey here, with the BBC telling Williams and the directors to remember that they were making a fundamentally serious show. The quality is reasonable, except for two clunkers at the end.

 

I recently bought the box set of this season on DVD (in a sad coincidence, it arrived on the morning of the news of Mary Tamm’s death), so a re-watch with reviews is a possibility. My memories of this one is that most of the run is good – except the last two.

 

The Ribos Operation (4 parts)

 

Ribos, a mediaeval-tech-level world where the seasons last for years. Two confidence tricksters are planning to sell the planet to an exiled tyrant. Little do they know that they actually have the first segment of the Key on them…

 

Bob Holmes’ witty, atmospheric and enjoyable tale starts us off in style, with a rich story, a great “Holmesian double act” and Baker turning in a great performance, along with Tamm, who got on well with him from the get-go.

 

The Pirate Planet (4 parts)

 

The Doctor, Romana and K9 land on what their systems say is Calufrax, but is actually a planet called Zanak… a planet that isn’t your normal sort of planet.

 

The writer’s name on this one alone is highly notable – Douglas Adams. The author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in most of its various forms worked on this at the same time as the first THHGTTG radio series and a number of references to Hitchhiker’s turn up in the show here and in other stories by other writers – also, the plot of the third novel, Life, the Universe and Everything was based on a rejected script for this show.

 

It’s typical Adams, with lines like “I’ll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again” and a whole bunch of outlandish concepts – a lot of trimming was needed to get this workable[5]. It’s a very good story: the guest cast are great, as are the regulars.

 

This story has never been officially novelised – Adams never got round to it before his death in 2001.

 

The Stones of Blood (4 parts)

 

The TARDIS crew arrive in modern Britain, near a stone circle that is attracting the attention of a cult and a not-so-mythical ‘goddess’. To make it worse, some of the stones move…

 

The 100th Doctor Who serial (Part 4 of this was broadcast in the anniversary TV week – the anniversary falling on a Thursday), which was due to feature a birthday scene for the Doctor until Graham Williams vetoed the idea as too self-indulgent[6], “Stones” is a dark, strong tale with strong horror lashings – including the nasty death of two campers just to up the tension. It arguably flags a little near the end, but I like this one a lot. The consistent videotape use throughout helps with this one.

 

The Androids of Tara (4 parts)

 

Political intrigue abounds on Tara, a world of android doubles where a Princess looks exactly like Romana…

 

Featuring Mary Tamm playing no less than four roles, “Tara”, a pastiche of The Prisoner of Zenda[7], is a swashbuckling tale that puts the key hunt to a minor status (Romana in fact collects the segment in Part One). With location filming at Leeds Castle[8] and a dastardly villain in the classic mould of dastardly villains, this is an enjoyable tale with a lot of love – in most quarters. I believe I actually read the Target novelisation before seeing this on TV.

 

The Power of Kroll (4 parts)

 

A struggle is going on between the natives and the crew of a refinery on the marshy planet Delta Magna. Not only that, the natives’ god, a giant squid called Kroll, is starting to awake.

 

Robert Holmes had one or two misfires during his career on this show, especially when he worked under restrictions. This story, his last until 1984, is definitely one of them, with Holmes told to incorporate the then largest monster in Doctor Who history into the adventure. Poor set design (the set designer never worked on the show again), a questionable scene involving an attempted sacrifice of Romana, a cameraman getting bad advice that wrecked a vital split screen effect and poor acting by most of the guest cast pop this one into the ‘clunker’ territory, with Holmes’ weaker than usual script not helping here.

 

K9 does not feature in this story – the marshy terrain was a no-no for him. However, due to another actor having to pull out, John Leeson stepped in front of the camera to play Dugeen, his only on-screen appearance as an actual actor.

 

The Armageddon Factor (6 parts)

 

The Doctor and Romana are caught up in a centuries-long nuclear war between the planets of Atrios and Zeos. It turns out that an agent of the Black Guardian is manipulating events…

 

This Bob Baker and Dave Martin tale (their last one together) should have been a big epic climax – it’s more of an epic clunker… Bad acting, an overly long story and a final climax that’s ultimately a huge let-down render this the worst story of Season 16.

 

Arguably the most noteworthy guest star in this one is one Lalla Ward, who plays a pivotal role in this (she’s a bit wooden here, but there’s arguably a reason for it). Yes, we’ll be seeing her again very soon.


1978/1979 also marked two further milestones for the show in the US. Firstly, the show was shown for the first time on the PBS stations, where it obtained a cult status, especially among students. A previous airing on Time-Life in 1972 had been unsuccessful – the network seems to have not realised the episodic nature of the show and moved it around the schedules too much.

 

Secondly, Who One in Los Angeles became the first US Doctor Who convention.

 

Back in the UK, this run got 8.6 million viewers on average. Again a sizeable hit, things were going to be getting much better, but not due to any of the show’s actions. Industrial action was about to have its biggest impact on Doctor Who.


[1]A now-closed American fighter base (its career included operating A-10s and an Aggressor squadron), Bentwaters now possesses a museum and is also a regular location for filming.

[2]Grace Kelly (1929-1982) while considered one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, had a surprisingly short career, only doing eleven films, three for Alfred Hitchcock. At the age of 26, she married Prince Rainier, the ruler of Monaco, the small principality on the French Riviera and retired.

[3]Tamm’s parents were in fact refugees from Estonia, which had been forcibly reintegrated into the then Soviet Union.

[4]Film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s second best known (and excellent) novel, published in 1972. The plot, set in 1963, is about a German reporter trying to find a concentration camp commandant, Eduard Roschmann, the “Butcher of Riga”, who is plotting to provide Egypt with the means to destroy Israel. Roschmann really existed – he was exposed as a result the film and arrested by the Argentine police, but jumped bail, dying in Paraguay in 1977.

 

The film starred Jon Voight, with Tamm taking on the role of his girlfriend Sigi.

[5]Also Douglas Adams was renowned for missing deadlines.

[6]The cake had already been ordered at this point, so the cast and crew naturally ate it.

[7]1894 novel by Anthony Hope about an English gentleman who is persuaded to impersonate the abducted king of Ruritania at his coronation – there have been a lot of adaptations and homages over the years, with this tale having a lot of similar characters. A working title for this serial was in fact “The Androids of Zenda”, but the BBC were understandably concerned about copyright issues.

[8]In Kent, not Yorkshire.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

It is reported that the first man on the Moon has died.

 

I’ve had a long interest in space travel and the Moon landings are a pivotal moment in that, as well as all human history. Armstrong wasn’t just a ‘lucky guy’ – his actions during a difficult landing saved Eagle from crashing and his decision to avoid the spotlight afterwards speaks volumes to the man’s character.

 

When we get a permanent facility on the Moon, it should be named after this man.

 

Rest in Peace, Mr Armstrong.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Doctor Who reviews for Season 33/7

I will be doing reviews for the new season of Doctor Who. However, to avoid spoiling our American players, these will be posted nine days after UK transmission.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Psychic Convention (Book Review: 'Doctor Who: Instruments of Darkness')



As I continue through the “Eleven Faces” series, I’ve had to expand from stories I haven’t seen (as I’ve seen pretty much all the complete classic ones) into the expanded universe, which I’ll call EU from here on in, of Doctor Who. This review is of one of the original tie-in novels, published during the “wilderness years”, when the show was not on TV.

There are four essential groups of 1989-2005 original novels (and the odd novelisation of something else) starring the Doctor, all paperbacks:
  • The New Adventures (NA): 61 novels published by Virgin Publishing from 1991 to 1997[1], nearly all starring the Seventh Doctor.
  • The Missing Adventures (MA): Also by Virgin Publishing, these 33 novels released from 1994 to 1997 , plus the stand-alone Who Killed Kennedy? from 1996, which is generally counted among them. These cover the first six Doctors.
  • Eighth Doctor Adventures (EDA): BBC Books’ 73 book series covering further adventures of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, running from 1997 to 2005. 
  • Past Doctor Adventures (PDA): BBC Books’ 1997-2005 series featuring the first seven Doctors (mostly). 75 novels were released.
The BBC ended their classic novel series when the current run of the show began to focus on novels in that setting, but have recently restarted it with a Second Doctor novel and a new novelisation of the not-transmitted Season 17 story “Shada”.

These novels, aimed at an adult audience, expand the continuity in many ways (some of them controversial, such as Time Lord reproduction). There is no official statement on canonicity of any EU work and fans are allowed to pick what bits they want from them, in essence[2]. They have also added a large number of additional companions who have become popular among the fandom and appeared in other EU works, such as the Big Finish audios – most notably companion to the Seventh Doctor archaeologist Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, who not only got her own novel series, but also her own audio one.

Acquisition notes

I acquired the Gary Russell[3] 2001 novel Instruments of Darkness, the 48th PDA, in 2006 at a Doctor Who event in a London department store. Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) was there and I purchased a novel starring his Doctor for him to sign. Lovely gentleman, by the way.

I’ve finally gotten round to reading it…

Where we’re at

Instruments of Darkness is a Sixth Doctor tale set nearer to the end of the incarnation. The Doctor and Melanie “Mel” Bush (a fitness fanatic with a propensity to scream a lot) have been travelling together for a while. Before the Mel met the Doctor for the first time[4], he travelled with two other companions, one of whom, Evelyn Smythe makes her sole PDA appearance here – she had previously featured in Big Finish.

This tale is a sequel to The Scales of Injustice and Business Unusual, the latter by Russell as well, featuring a number of the same characters.

The plot  

I’ll quote the blurb in full. Seems best really.

The leaders on planet Earth think that the Magnate is a mysterious 'shadow Government' that controls the world. It isn't. The leaders believe the Network to be a ramshackle, paranoid outfit of European anarchists who will eventually blow themselves up. They won't. The leaders believe that if there are humans who can control things with their minds - ESPnets - they're few and far between, and not worth worrying about. They're wrong. The leaders believe that one minute after midnight on 31 December 1993, a new year, full of promise, will begin. They're wrong.

The Doctor and Mel arrive on Earth just days before New Year. An old friend has been kidnapped and taken to France. And two murderous enemies are setting up a new life in the Peak District. Which of these threats should the Doctor deal with first? And why is his old travelling companion Evelyn Smythe using her knowledge of the future to make a fortune from chocolate cake recipes?!

What works


  • The opening of this novel, involving a mysterious albino turning up at various points in American history and with a few deaths along the way, sets up a nice air of mystery that slowly becomes clear along the course of the 287 pages. It’s clear from the get-go this is a grown-up tale (with an attempted rape in the first chapter).
  • The Sixth Doctor (who just needs a decent script) shines in this tale, with his wordiness and general pomposity coming across nicely.
  • In addition, so does Evelyn. Evelyn is a non-traditional companion, in that she’s an old lady and retired professor, who can operate with the Sixth Doctor as his intellectual equal, unlike Peri and Mel, the screamers of this era. She gets some brilliant stuff here and a wonderful bit on the problems of knowing the future.
  • There’s a rather great James Bond reference in the book, as well as a general atmosphere of ‘heart attacks’ and spy action.
  • You don’t need to have read the previous two novels to understood this one.


What doesn’t
 
This is a tale involving extrasensory perception (ESP) and mind stuff like that… I have a problem suspending my disbelief when it comes to things like that. Yes, I know this is a show with time travel and things bigger on the inside.
  • Also this is a continuity-heavy novel, with lots of references to the previous books and other EU stuff like C19, a former British alien defence agency. One character is implied to be an old companion who oddly enough features in another work I’ll be reviewing. Not one for the casual fan this.
  • It’s hard to follow the plot at times and to keep track of some of the characters. It also seems a bit oddly paced and the climax lacks tension. 
  • There is more than one historical error – possibly deliberate – such as Eurostar operating in 1993, when in our world it opened in 1994. This irked me a little. 
  • Finally, what’s this whole thing with albinos and mysterious powers? The only thing really special about them, as TV Tropes points out, is a greater risk of skin cancer.
Conclusion

Competent, but not brilliant. There are better – and arguably worse – PDAs out there.

6/10

[1]The rights went to the BBC after the 1996 TV movie, but Virgin were allowed to publish the remaining ones in the series.
[2]Especially as one lot of EU can contradict another.
[3]Editor of Doctor Who Magazine from 1991-1995 and Big Finish producer until 2006, he is now a script editor on the main show, although that role is less prominent than it used to be. An actor as well as writer, he has done quite a lot of books.
[4]He met her for the first time in “Trial of a Time Lord”, but that was further ahead in her personal time stream.

Monday, 20 August 2012

'Baldur's Gate' sim renamed to 'Forgotten Realms'

The new fantasy sim set in the world of the computer game Baldur's Gate has been renamed to Forgotten Realms.

It is also looking for more players, as are most of our sims.


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

'Doctor Who' Season 15 (1977/8): Get A Shooty Dog Thing

We’re going to need a bigger barbie…

 

Graham Williams was going to have a rather rough three years as producer of Doctor Who. The British economy underwent ‘stagflation’ with inflation over 12% for the entirety of 1977 -  eventually the British government was forced to ask for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. To give you an idea of the impact, something costing £1,000 in 1976 would cost closer to £1,700 in 1980[1]. Williams later stated that he was working on a real-term budget in 1979 of half what he had in 1977. In fact, inflation combined with orders from the BBC to rein in costs forced serious changes to the last two stories of this production block – the first having to undergo major production changes and the second being a rapid replacement for a story deemed too expensive. In fact, serious consideration was given to dropping the final story of the run altogether.

 

Other factors also impacted on the plans for the season. Firstly, the planned season opener by Terrance Dicks, then titled “The Vampire Mutation”, was deemed a possible send-up of a BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and ordered to be shelved by Graeme McDonald, the BBC’s Head of Drama, forcing a new story to be written at short notice by Dicks. “The Vampire Mutation” survived as a script and was eventually made for Season 18 as “State of Decay”.

 

The second factor contained a planet-destroying space station and one of the most impressive opening shots in cinematic history.

 

Star Wars (as it was then called) was released in the UK on 27 December 1977. With its blockbuster budget, huge model shots and epic story, the entirety of television sci-fi was going to have to up its game to stay competitive. The Americans had the budgets to do it[2]; the British networks on the whole didn’t. However, after seeing a preview screening, Williams certainly tried to put a little Industrial Light and Magic (so to speak) into the show, with mixed success.

 

In fact this 26-episode run can itself be described as “mixed success”. Bob Holmes script edited the first four stories, then handed over to Anthony Read for the last two. With the horror element toned down, the humour stood out a lot more, but the stories themselves vary in quality massively. You’ve got three minor classics, but also three clunkers…


Tom Baker and Louise Jameson continued in their roles all through this season, although they would be joined by a new companion two stories in. One of the canis roboticus variety…

 

Horror of Fang Rock (four parts)

 

The Doctor and Leela arrive on the island of Fang Rock off the coast of England at the turn of the 20th century. Something evil is in the lighthouse and is killing off its inhabitants, including the survivors of a shipwreck one by one…

 

A moody minor classic with a high relative body count, “Fang Rock” was the last minute replacement written by Dicks – who was told to set it in a lighthouse by Holmes as payback for making him do “The Time Warrior” as a pseudo-historical. It also features the sole TV appearance of the Sontarans’ enemy, the Rutans and Leela’s eyes changing colour (with an in-story explanation)[3].

 

The story was the only one of the classic run filmed entirely outside of London, the (now closed) Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham providing studio space as engineering work rendered Television Centre unavailable. Also, a 1987 PBS broadcast of this story was the scene of a rather memorable (not to mention bizarre) broadcast hijack.

 

The Invisible Enemy (four parts)

 

A rocket crew are infected by a sentient space virus. When the Doctor flies the TARDIS in to help them, he is infected himself…

 

Written by the “Bristol Boys” pair of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, this story, which features a Fantastic Voyage-style trip into the Doctor’s brain and a new TARDIS console room by Barry Newbery (the old version slightly altered), has acquired a reputation as a clunker – a “nice idea, shame about the execution” case It’s got bad CSO, a rather silly climax where the virus gets human size (see picture) and a noticeable goof where K9 clearly fires at a pre-cracked wall[4].

 

However, this story is notable for the debut of the robot dog K9, owned by a Professor in this story, but who is given to the Doctor at the end.

 

K9 – The Shooty Dog Thing

 

K9, K-9 or even K.9 (the precise rendering varies – we’ll go with the first), was created by Baker and Martin for this story[5], being ultimately kept on as the appeal for younger viewers was clear. There have been multiple on-screen versions of the dog, but they have all tended to be laser-armed, formal, highly intelligent and prone to pedantry.

 

The voice of K9 for most of his appearances has been John Leeson (1943-present), who has appeared in front of the camera and in the voice booth for a number of things, including being the first voice of Bungle in Rainbow[6] – he currently does continuity for Channel 4.

 

While Leeson’s performance posed no problems, the remote control prop caused a lot of them – being prone to interference, breaking down and getting stuck; there are three location heavy stories in which he effectively doesn’t feature because they had enough problems to deal with already.

 

K9 was hugely popular with most people and has even gotten two spin-off series attempts: the pilot only K9 and Company in 1981 co-starring Lis Sladen and the more successful Australian K9 (One season in 2009-10, with second planned).

 

Image of the Fendahl (four parts)

 

A fossilised skull that science says should not exist is actually an artefact of a god-like race that feeds on the life force of others…

 

The last real “Gothic Horror” story, this one’s an atmospheric classic of the 1970s with superb dialogue and a very interesting plot.

 

The Sun Makers (four parts)

 

The Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive on Pluto in the far future. The planet has six suns, a breathable atmosphere and a human population that is being economically exploited by an alien company…

 

The product of Bob Holmes having an argument with the Inland Revenue over his taxes, this is a deeply satirical tale (with more than one reference to the British tax system, such as a corridor called P45[7]) and also a rather good one, that stands up well today.

 

A clip from the story can be seen here.

 

Underworld (four parts)

 

At the edge of the known universe, the time travellers land on a spaceship that is on a quest to recover the genetic data bank of their species.

 

A story with a lot of references to mythology, especially Greek mythology and particularly the quest for the Golden Fleece, budget problems and the influence of Star Wars meant that much of the budget went into two impressive sets, with the rest of the sets realised using CSO. This latter use, the most CSO to date in a BBC production, makes this an attempt to do virtual sets three decades before Sanctuary that ultimately doesn’t work… with bad dialogue, bad acting and even Tom Baker looking bored, “Underworld” can ultimately be described as “ambitious but rubbish” – and not in a good way. Really, it’s just boring and the story has an awful reputation – it came 197th in the Mighty 200 poll, the worst story of the Tom Baker era.

 

The Invasion of Time (six parts)

 

The Doctor, acting very strangely indeed, takes Team TARDIS to Gallifrey and claims the position of President of the High Council of the Time Lords (long story, but he basically got elected to the position in “The Deadly Assassin”)… It turns out he’s brought some invading aliens with him. Just what is going on?

 

Leela and the first K9 depart in this story, the former deciding to marry a man she’s just met… This story was a late replacement for the planned “Killers Of The Dark”, abandoned as it was deemed too expensive (it would have involved a forum the size of Wembley Stadium filled with cat people). Williams and Read wrote this tale in a hurry, putting it out under the name of David Agnew[8]. Making things even worse for them, industrial action at the BBC limited the studio time available and so they decided to use emergency funding for filming a whole batch of TARDIS interior scenes on Outside Broadcast videotape at an abandoned hospital.

 

Unfortunately, the weight of production problems combined with some poor performances put this one firmly into failure territory. Season 15 ends on a poor note.


9.0 million viewers on average, while less than the previous season, still represented a sizeable hit and Doctor Who remained a firm fixture on the BBC schedules.

 

Louise Jameson had chosen to move on, but Leeson was still on board, as the end of “Invasion of Time” featured the Doctor revealing a box marked K9 MARK II. Next season, as well as a robot dog, the Doctor would be joined by someone very much his intellectual equal.

 

It was Romana time.


[1]Calculated with: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/inflation/calculator/flash/default.aspx

[2]Although not to huge ratings success – the original Battlestar Galactica only ran one season and its sequel Galactica 1980 got cancelled mid-run.

[3]Louise Jameson’s natural eye colour is blue, but Hinchcliffe had decided to have her wear brown contact lenses as he felt the blue eyes looked wrong on her savage character. Jameson found the contacts very uncomfortable and as part of the agreement for her to do Season 15, it was arranged for them to go.

[4]Not Newbery’s fault – the wall looked fine to begin, but the director asked for retakes and they couldn’t repair the wall in time.

[5]They own the copyright to the dog and get credited for his use each time appears.

[6]Thames Television children’s show running from 1972 to 1992 – ending when Thames lost the London weekday ITV franchise, but seeing some further stuff afterwards. Much loved at the time, with memorable puppet characters (Zippy, Bungle and George). There’s a rather infamous ‘adult’ bit (featuring lot of double entendre) that while appearing on various clip shows was never intended for broadcast – it formed part of Thames’ 1972 Christmas tape, a part of the staff Christmas party and mostly containing various outtakes.

[7]A form used in the UK and also Ireland when an employee leaves their job – one part goes to what is now called HM Revenue and Customs, one is retained by the employee and the other bit is meant to be given to the next employer or the benefits agency. Hence “getting your P45” is a British term for losing your job.

[8]An in-house BBC pseudonym used at this time for situations when the original writer couldn’t do fundamental rewrites and so the production team had to do the job themselves – BBC rules prohibited the production staff from taking this credit without getting permission and this was a quicker method than going through that process.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Phoenix Roleplaying is two years old

You may or may not be aware of this, but Phoenix Roleplaying celebrated its 2nd Birthday on 8 August 2012.

Let's hope for many more years to come!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Doctor Who creation drama announced

To quote my entry on Season 1 of my history of Doctor Who:

 

“There is a great drama about the creation of this show just waiting to be made and I wouldn’t be too surprised if we got one next year.”

 

We're getting one.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Yetis in Tibet (Book Review: 'Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen')

5 down, 17 to go.

My “Eleven Faces” series continues with my first experience of another Doctor Who adventure. This time, I’ve gone for a novelisation.

Target Books

From 1973 to 1994, Target Books (an imprint of various companies over the years) published novelizations of nearly every DW TV story and radio play to that point, as well as three of the unmade stories from the original plan for Season 23 – the first three they did were reprints of 1960s novels, but these are considered part of the range. In a pre-VHS/DVD range these 156 books were the only ways to experience the old stories, as repeats were very rare.

The novels tend to be short – about 150 to 200 pages – and do not follow the stories exactly, with minor changes, extra scenes and sometimes tightening up the plot. They’re also aimed at a young audience, although Ian Marter’s ones did go a little more adult than others. You can find many a Target in a second hand book shop or charity shop these days.

Recently, the BBC have reprinted some of the novels in both e-book and paperback form, with new forewords and afterwords. I got the electronic version of Doctor Who and The Abominable Snowmen, as I haven’t seen or heard any of the story – although I am familiar with the plot through the reference work The Television Companion.

Where we’re at

The Doctor, Victoria and Jamie arrive at a monastery in Tibet in 1935, expecting a warm welcome. What they get is a place at fear of the sinister robot Yeti…

“The Abominable Snowmen” was the second story of Season 5 of the original run, written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln, being broadcast in autumn 1967. Only episode 2 of this six-parter is complete in the BBC archives. In 1974, Terrance Dicks (the most prolific writer of the range and then script editor) did this one. On the advice of then producer Barry Letts, a practising Buddhist, who had noted that Haisman and Lincoln had named the monks after well-known figures in Buddhist history, Dicks changed the names of some of the characters slightly to avoid causing any offence.

What works

The novel has a wonderful atmosphere (and more snow than the original TV story), with a genuine threat that wants to take over the world. The Yeti themselves are powerful creatures and very hard to destroy – arrows just bounce off them and firearms are hard to come by here. The vessel through which the villain uses to communicate and influence people is a classically horrific one, a human being who is not allowed to die; you’ve got to feel sorry for the guy.

The plot in itself is classic “base under siege”, complete with Team TARDIS getting incarcerated on more than one occasion, building to a superb climax which you can imagine being done today. The use of the Yeti control devices (they have to be in the creatures to allow them to work) is a great plot device.

Dicks captures the Second Doctor and Jamie very well – I’m familiar with both their voices, with their dialogue sounding authentic. In particular, the Second Doctor has a great deal of intelligence and hidden strength, something that is common with all the Doctors.

What doesn’t

Victoria Waterfield, who has acquired a justified reputation as one of the show’s biggest screamers, has little to do here. She gets hypnotised at one point (badly so) and is only brought along for the final confrontation because she’d do even worse if left on her own.

The pacing of the story is a little off as well, but not by too much. The paragraphing (i.e. where the sentences were and when we went to a new paragraph, a lot less frequently than today) threw me a little, but I got used to it.

Conclusion

An enjoyable read and a nice insight into a lost story. You’re not expecting Shakespeare, but what’s here is good.

8/10

Thursday, 2 August 2012

USS Repulse closes

Our final remaining Star Trek sim, USS Repulse has officially closed its doors. Hopefully, we will have an ST sim again at some point.

'Doctor Who' Season 14 (1976/77): The Mary Whitehouse Experience

 

 

He hasn’t taken kindly to Gok Wan’s comments…

 

The summer of 1976 was famously hot, with a prolonged drought causing crop failures and necessitating the use of standpipes in some areas. However, the drought was promptly ended by a very wet autumn, which arguably helped the ratings for a show that having a solid base, is weather-dependent for a good part of its audience (which is partly the reason for the Season 32 split and Season 33’s late August start this year).

 

Britain gained a new Prime Minister in the season break, with Harold Wilson stepping down after a total of eight years as PM and being replaced by James Callaghan, who immediately had Labour’s parliamentary majority disappear entirely, making himself leader of a minority government.

 

Doctor Who’s fandom gained a new major component in 1976, with the establishment of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS), officially approved by the BBC. DWAS, whose fanzine (The Celestial Toyroom) has been going monthly since 1976, would be a major force in the fandom for most of the pre-Web age. It provided sources of information on the show’s past that many fans would not have access to and Jeremy Bentham’s enthusiastic liking of “The Celestial Toymaker”, then entirely lost, inflated that story’s standing among fans until Episode 4 (it drags badly) turned up, which resulted in a rapid downwards re-evaluation.

 

While DWAS would be a boon for the show, the BBC was having something to worry about.

 

Mary Whitehouse.

 

Mary Whitehouse – The “Clean-Up TV” Campaigner

 

Constance Mary Whitehouse CBE (1910-2001), a former arts and sex education teacher, was a socially conservative evangelical Christian who spent much of her life campaigning against what she saw as objectionable content in media i.e. violence, sex and bad language. In 1965, after a Clean-Up TV campaign she founded what would the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVALA, now called Mediawatch-uk), that attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters.

 

Whitehouse fired at a lot of targets during her life, mostly at the BBC when it came to television, such as Benny Hill (him of “Yakety Sax”) for smut and Till Death Us To Part[1] for bad language, usually with letter-writing campaigns. Her activities hugely irritated Director-General Sir Hugh Greene, who eventually had enough of her and retired in 1969, being replaced by a more conservative DG, Sir Charles Curran. Comedy shows made her the frequent target of jokes as well.

 

She wasn’t afraid to use the courts – bringing a successful libel case against the writer of Till Death Us Do Part for calling her and her organisation “fascists” in 1967, then topping that by bringing a successful private prosecution in 1977 for “blasphemous libel”, the first since 1922, against Gay Times and its editor for publishing a poem about Jesus having gay sex – they were fined, although a suspended jail team was quashed on appeal. In 1982, another private prosecution[2] for gross indecency against a National Thread play called The Romans in Britain for simulated anal rape collapsed[3], although did establish the precedent that the 1956 Sexual Offences Act could apply to the theatre.

 

Whitehouse was ultimately unsuccessful in her attempts (I can imagine how she’d react to the stuff on Sky Atlantic today like Game of Thrones), although got a great deal of press and public support. She could claim partial credit for some key legislation on British media and the creation of the Broadcasting Standards Board in 1988, that ultimately became part of Ofcom. Her activities also gave the title to an early 1990s BBC sketch show that forms the title of this entry.

 

Her Doctor Who-related activities peaked at this time – she described the show as “teatime brutality for tots” and had a particular go at Season 13’s “The Seeds of Doom”. She was going to change the nature of the show dramatically and bring an end to Gothic Horror…


Season 14, with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes partnership continuing, is another classic of the Baker era – not a single story of this six-story, 26-episode run can even be considered a clunker and three have all-time great status. The ratings set a new record for the show, with an average of 11.08 million and only one episode even going below nine million.

 

It was a time of transition, of new revelations and Rodents of Unusual Size…

 

The Masque of Mandragora (4 parts)

 

After an encounter with a space energy thing, the Doctor and Sarah Jane land in ‘Italy’[4] in the late 15th century, where sinister machinations both human and alien are to be found.

 

The story that established the Time Lord/TARDIS-enabled universal translator, “Mandragora” is an enjoyable pseudo-historical, with superb sets and filming in the Welsh village of Portmerion, best known for the 1960s ITC drama The Prisoner.

 

The Secondary Console Room

 

This season saw the one-season use of the wood-panelled “secondary control room” with smaller console too, a smaller set that the Doctor claimed was the original, long closed for maintenance. Hinchcliffe had found the old set too large and difficult to film in, being prone to technical problems as well.

 

It has to be remembered that there was no dedicated facility for Doctor Who at Television Centre – so once the recording on this season was done, the scenery for this set went into storage. Where it promptly warped and became unusable for Season 15, resulting in a new set having to be made.

 

The Hand of Fear (4 parts)

 

After landing in a quarry[5], the two are caught in a mining explosion. When they awake, Sarah Jane is holding a fossilised hand – a hand that possesses her…

 

Lis Sladen’s final story as a regular (the Doctor is summoned to Gallifrey and can’t take her), which allows her to play the villain for a while and do it well even when dressed like Andy Pandy. This was re-aired as a tribute to her and still holds up well, but does contain a rather implausible scene involving a nuclear missile strike on a nuclear power station[6]. The final scene, which Baker and Sladen wrote in final form, is wonderfully done.

 

The Deadly Assassin (4 parts)

 

The Doctor arrives on Gallifrey, where he becomes the prime suspect in the assassination of the President of the High Council of the Time Lords…

 

The sole story of the run where the Doctor is on his own with no companion (regular or “guest”) – Baker insisted he could carry the show on this own and this acted as a ‘pilot’ for the concept that wasn’t carried on. Robert Holmes’ story revised the portrayal of the Time Lords, turning them from disinterested godlike creatures into a corrupt and decaying race (with a few sly digs at the USA e.g. the Celestial Intervention Agency), in the process introducing many of the key elements of Time Lord lore, most notably the 12 regeneration limit and “the Matrix”, the Time Lord data net and virtual world. Fan reaction to this change was hostile, with then-DWAS President Jan Vincent-Rudzki declaring “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?”. However, the story has been comprehensively re-evaluated and is now considered one of the show’s greatest stories of all-time – getting place 20 in the Mighty 200 poll.

 

One other aspect of this story was the most controversial bit of the show to date and got Whitehouse et al. up in arms; the freeze-frame of Part Three with the Doctor’s head being held underwater for a protracted period of time. The furore was so much that the BBC’s DG apologised in writing to the NVALA and the master tape was edited to remove most of the scene; it survives in international copies.

 

The Decaying Master – Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers

 

This story also features a new version of the Master –a decaying, rotting man who has used up all his regenerations and wants a new body. This version only appears here and in Season 18’s “The Keeper of Traken”, where he acquires said new body. Both Holmes and Hinchcliffe were considering moving on even before the furore this story caused and felt that this type of Master would allow a new production team to change to a new form more easily if they didn’t like him.

 

Here he is played by the late Peter Pratt (1923-1995), otherwise known for his Gilbert and Sullivan operetta work – his TV work being limited. I’ll discuss Geoffrey Beevers (who took the role for this version’s second appearance) more when I get to “Traken”.

 

The Face of Evil (4 parts)

 

The Doctor arrives on a planet in the far future, where a savage tribe worship a god called Xoanon and the Time Lord is called “The Evil One”…

 

Billed as the start of a new season, due to a six week gap, “The Face of Evil”[7], written by Chris Boucher (who would later script edit Blake’s 7) is a highly impressive tale, particularly for the jungle set, with a lot of good acting and wonderful, if not entirely original, concepts. This story would also see the introduction of one of the show’s most memorable companions.

 

Leela of the Sevateem – One for the Dads

 

The new companion actress was chosen from a field of 60 by Louise Jameson (1951-), who has had a long career on British television, including Eastenders, Doc Martin and Bergerac[8]. She’s recently reprised her role as Leela for Big Finish and also played other roles in the BBV spinoff P.R.O.B.E. videos (of which more later).

 

Leela, partly named after  Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, intended to be a one-shot character who was elevated to regular status during scripting (initially for three serials, as Baker didn’t like the character to begin with, but turning into another season after this), was a highly aggressive ‘Eliza Doolittle’-like character, in that the Doctor was aiming to educate her, with a frequent willingness to use a knife or poisonous janus thorns. She only screamed once in her entire tenure. However, she is primarily remembered for one thing. Her costume.

 

There is a long and not entirely glorious history of attractive female leads in family-orientated science-fiction/fantasy (two words: Starfleet miniskirts), with DW not being exempt, most recently with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond and her many short skirts. Leela spent most of her stories in a skimpy leather outfit, which had the desired effect of keeping the dads interested, as well as the younger male fans hitting puberty at this point.

 

The Robots of Death (4 parts)

 

The Doctor and Leela investigate a murder mystery on a sandminer.

 

Another all-time great, the ninth best story in the Mighty 200, “Robots of Death” is a wonderfully made story with a rich universe that spawned a spinoff audio series called Kaldor City for Big Finish. It also contains a rather good in-joke, with robophobia (an irrational fear of robots) being dubbed “Grimwade’s Syndrome” after then production assistant, later writer and director, Peter Grimwade, who moaned about the stories he worked on nearly always involving robots.

 

The Talons of Weng-Chiang (6 parts)

 

The Doctor takes Leela to Victorian London (appropriately dressed of course) to show her the lives of her ancestors, but get caught up in a plot involving a time travelling war criminal, giant rats, opium dens and a sinister children’s toy…

 

Number 4 on the Mighty 200 list, Robert Holmes’ corker set in Victoriana involves great dialogue, a memorable double act (Jago and Litefoot – imagine two members of the Mallard Club handling aliens), a location of location filming on Outside Broadcast videotape the first mention of Time Agents and Baker wearing a “Sherlock Holmes”-esque (with deerstalker) costume. The giant rat leaves much to be desired though and is generally kept in darkness to hide the fact.

 

However, the story has attracted controversy, with a number of North American stations (most notably TVOntario) refusing to air this because a number of the Chinese roles are played by white actors in yellowface – it’s been said that a suitably experienced Chinese actor couldn’t be found in the UK. This said, there is a lot of anti-racist content in the story and yellowface took a while longer to become unacceptable in the UK.

 

Notably, this was the first story that Christopher Eccleston watched after he was cast as the Ninth Doctor.


Eventually, the BBC (who were publically defending the show throughout) cracked under the Whitehouse-led pressure, with “Assassin” being the final straw. Phillip Hinchcliffe was reassigned to work on a BBC cop series called Target, an effective sacking as producer on DW[9]. The creator of that show, Graham Williams, was moved to Doctor Who, with explicit orders to tone things down from Head of Serials Bill Slater. A return to the UNIT style format of Pertwee was vetoed by Slater and Williams’ idea for a six-story season arc involving the search for the components of an all-powerful ‘Key to Time’ was put back to Season 16 as the lead-up time wasn’t enough otherwise. So Williams and Holmes went for more traditional fare.

 

This also included the addition of one robot dog…


[1]A long running sitcom that resulted in two sequel shows, it starred Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, an East End working class man who railed against society, women, ethnic minorities and anything that wasn’t West Ham United. Always meant to be a figure of ridicule (Mitchell was a socialist and Jewish), although some didn’t get the joke, Garnett remains a household name in the UK.

[2]From 1737 to 1968, when it lost that role, British theatre was regulated by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, who had to approve all plays before they were performed and applied a broad brush approach to censorship, seeming to possess very dirty minds. British playwrights found ways round the Office, often by performing their plays in private clubs (not covered) or in the notable case of the Windmill Theatre, convincing the Lord Chamberlain that it wasn’t obscene if the naked ladies were standing still and pretending to be statutes.

 

Following 1968, any prosecutions were at the discretion of the Attorney General, who had decided not to prosecute.

[3] The sole prosecution witness, Whitehouse’s solicitor (Whitehouse herself refused to see the play), was found to have seen the bit in question from 90 feet away and could not be sure what he actually saw, following which the prosecution counsel declined to continue with the case. Whitehouse was ordered to pay £14,000 in costs.

[4]Italy for most of its history has been far more of a concept than an actual country; until full unification in 1861, it consisted of a motley collection of states of varying power, such as Naples, Genoa and the Papal States. The peninsula now only consists of Italy, San Marino and the Holy See, the last being the very tiny remnants of Papal territory being granted to the Catholic Church in the Lateran Treaty of 1929.

[5]An actual quarry for a change. DW has a long history of using quarries for alien landscapes (although less so now) to the point it’s actually sent the idea up, as does much of British sci-fi/fantasy. The US likes the Southern Californian desert, while Canada-based productions (e.g. Stargate) tend to use the forests of British Colombia.

[6]This story filmed in a functioning nuclear power station. You wouldn’t have that happen today!

[7]One working title for this, dropped to avoid causing offence, was “The Day That God Went Mad”).

[8]Jersey-set BBC (produced with Australia’s Seven Network) detective drama that ran from 1981 to 1991 and is still repeated on cable networks. It was created by Robert Banks Stewart, who wrote two DW stories before this.

[9]As he knew he was leaving, he felt free to put a serious amount of money into “Talons”.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Sim closures

Due to its Sim Leader going AWOL, The (In)Human Dilemma is closed with immediate effect by order of the General Coordinator.

Due to a lack of players and activity, Set Europe Ablaze is closed with immediate effect by the decision of Sim Leader Silent Hunter.

It is as yet unconfirmed, but USS Repulse may close in the next few days.
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