The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year

So farewell 2009. A very good year. I got married, that was the main thing. From this year on, I’ll be checking my age, deducting 36, and adding one month to find out how long I’ve been married. To a marvellous, lovely girl, and I’ll shut up about it now.

I seem to have been working pretty much constantly. Doctor Who things, mainly. It’s kept me busy, and I think I’ve done some good work. I hope people aren’t getting sick of my name appearing on things; I suppose I could always use a pseudonym. Most of my things seem to have gone done very well, for which I am extremely grateful but not prepared to take an ounce of credit. 2009, the year of the Hothouse, Cannibalists, Company Of Friends, The Eternal Summer, The Glorious Revolution, The Mists Of Time, and Space Vikings!. And I’ve got, er, three or four or five things long-since written but due out next year, Deimos with Paul McGann, which I think is the strongest story I’ve written, certainly in terms of plotting at least, and a Peter Davison adventure which I also think is one of my more accomplished efforts. I get the feeling I’m improving; trying not to rely upon technique, trying to surprise myself, leave the comfort zone. I’m certainly getting faster.

Not so much other stuff, sadly. No time. Attempted another sitcom script but kind of lost interest half-way through. Had an idea for a film but, as films don’t seem to get made, left it to ‘mature’ in a bottom drawer.

I did write my own original, hour-long, family sci-fi drama, as a demo thing, and if I do say so myself it was a bloody good script, I certainly put a lot of effort into it, but trying to get people to bother to read the thing has proved to be a real bugger. I sent it to my agent earlier this year, and after three months it hadn’t even been read, so I decided to change agent. And try to take my career more into my own hands (as I seemed to get further that way). But if anyone out there wants to read my marvellous family sci-fi drama script, please get in touch. Cue: tumbleweed.

2010 looks promising. I’ve got a regular writing gig, fingers crossed, touch wood, that is if they don’t see sense and fire me. And I really should try writing another sitcom, as I’ve had another Idea So Good No Sane Commissioner Could Ever Turn It Down. And being married has turned out to be wonderful, but I said I’d shut up about that.

Oh, and 2009 was the year I did a daily blog. Except in November, but I’ll go back and fill in the blank days with stuff from my ‘rainy day blogs’ folder. It started out as being strictly under 300 words; now I don’t bother with a wordcount. Not sure if I’ll persevere into 2010. Probably not on a daily basis. It’s been fun, but my fingers are tired.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Two For The Price Of One

Watched the new Star Trek film on DVD. It really is magnificent. Okay, so the bit where Captain Kirk lands on the ice planet and happens to bump into the exact person who the plot requires him to meet is a whopping great coincidence which could have been sorted out with one line of dialogue, but apart from that, it’s about as perfect a Star Trek film as anyone who quite likes Star Trek could hope for. I mean, The Wrath Of Kahn is good, but I watched it again a few months ago and found it all a bit too by-the-numbers mid-80’s movie-making, with Kirk discovering a son he never had. Pah! Kirk has dozens of sons and daughters he never knew he had scattered across the galaxy! And half of them are bright green. A few have bumpy foreheads. Some are bright blue with antennae. Hell, one of them is half-Tribble!

I gather that some Star Trek fans weren’t too keen on the film, because it dares to re-write continuity. Tch! Some people don’t know they’re born – which is ironic, really, because now Captain Pickard has never been born either. Ho ho ho. I can’t see what they’re moaning about – rather than having one continuity wiped out, they’ve now got two great big, interlinked, canonical versions of the Star Trek story to play with. One where it starts off fantastic with the original series and then meticulously adheres to the parabola of diminishing returns with the Next Generation, that really talky one, that really dull one, and that really shit one; and another continuity where we don’t know what’s going to happen next and where a brand-new Captain Kirk can boldly go to planets not yet listed in the Star Trek Episode Guide. Plus it has the legendary Deep Roy in it!

A little comic strip book came free with the DVD. Interested to see how the Star Trek comic strip people do things differently from the Doctor Who comic strip people (i.e. me), I found it an enjoyable read, as it detailed the back-story of the movie (not ‘filling in gaps’ as such, as that would imply there were gaps that needed filling); how Nemo got hold of such an impressively gothic/Lovecraftian spaceship etc. The only odd thing is that each episode’s ‘cliff-hanger’ as such is the introduction of yet another bloody character from the Next Generation, which is the kind of fan-pleasing contrivance which is both fun and indulgent (I’m thinking fondly of my much-missed friend Craig Hinton here)... it’s nice to see familiar faces but you’re left with the impression that the Star Trek universe is a disappointingly small and insular place.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Wrong

Currently reading two Xmas presents.

Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland. This is essentially an informal guide to how and why people make wrong decisions, or why they stick to wrong decisions even after they’ve been given new information. A better title for the book would have been ‘Why Other People Are Wrong’. Full of interesting ideas; for instance, that rewarding success financially actually has the effect of devaluing a task - that by paying people more you are effectively encouraging them to be more mercenary and discouraging those who have other motives for work, such as creativity or public-spiritedness. And how committees tend to make bad decisions; why being in a situation where your boss decides your fate leads to sycophancy of opinion and people concealing bad news. It’s all obvious, after the fact, but compelling stuff all the same.

Also reading Michael Palin’s diaries of the 80’s. Which, even though he’s carefully selected and omitted diary entries, still feels like I’m stalking him retrospectively – following him to the chiropodist to have his corn treated, peering through his window as he fails to write a film script, sitting at the next table in the restaurant as he has an amusing meal with JC and TJ – and sometimes even visits GH at Friar Park. It’s not as revelatory as his account of Python, but it’s quite an addictive read, as one spots the early hints of projects later to come to fruition – JC spending years on the script of ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, TJ never quite getting his viking film to work, TG flying over to the States in the hope of funding ‘Baron Munchausen’, EI constantly trying to get Python to do another film, GC doing bugger all. Along with MP himself slowly forming the ideas of ‘The Missionary’, ‘East of Ipswich’ and ‘American Friends’.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Blinded By The Light

The BBC’s production of Day Of The Triffids.

Hmmm. Not totally keen, I’m afraid. My main problem with it is that, IMHO, the story is not an action-adventure special-effects fest. That’s not the point of the original novel, which is a terribly, terribly British and restrained account of the apocalypse in which everyone maintains a stiff-upper-lip but does What Needs To Be Done. No, the point of the story is to create an apocalypse out of humanity losing one of its senses (in this case, sight) – about how vulnerable our society is, that so much is dependent upon so little. The Triffids are merely a plot device; to illustrate that without sight, Man is no longer at the top of the food chain, and that even a slow, lumbering plant that could easily be out-run is now a threat – because it still retains a form of ‘sight’.

The new adaptation seemed to have been filtered through a prism of cliché; a little bit of ‘Lost’ here, a little bit of ‘28 Days Later’ there. Atmosphere and character were replaced by CGI and melodrama. The book’s survivalist themes were sidelined, instead we had spurious ‘updating’ with Spudgun from 'Trainspotting' as a vegetable-liberationist (appropriately enough), a minor character (Torrence) foregrounded, a hokey search-for-a-father-son-redemption plot, a futile attempt at finding a ‘cure’, and a load of nonsense about masks and poison in Zaire. With every plot development being spelt out for the hard of understanding through narration and numerous illustrative flashbacks (a common failing of British television; underestimating the audience’s intelligence. The problem being, once you’ve started thinking someone is not as clever than you, inevitably you start treating them as though they are thick.)

I didn’t think the Triffids were too bad, but the problem with CGI is that no matter how technically convincing it is, what we’re seeing is still laughably absurd, so the audience is always aware it’s watching a computer-generated composite. I think the actors were struggling to make sense of their characters; Joely Richardson under-playing, Eddie Izzard going to the other extreme, rolling his eyes and waggling his fingers.

Oh, and I’m still not sure how they got from Hampstead Heath to a nunnery in the middle of the countryside. But then, the story never gave any clue as the timescale of what was happening - was it all in the space of one week, or over a number of months?

Have to say, for all its failings, the BBC’s early 80’s production remains definitive.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Top Of The Pops

Haven’t watched a lot of Christmas television. Okay, so I watched ‘Doctor Who’, that’s compulsory. I caught about one minute of the end of an episode of ‘EastEnders’ where they were using John Lennon’s Xmas song as incidental music; it was so incoherent and badly-edited I assumed it was a trailer until the end titles came up. Nobody bothers about starting or ending scenes properly any more.

Also watched the ‘Not Going Out’ Xmas special, which was okay, and the ‘QI’, which has grown increasingly flabby, where some of the ‘facts’ are total made-up bollocks (no-one in the history of Beatles fandom has ever used the ‘Help’ album cover as part of a John Lennon is dead conspiracy!)

Caught the second half of the Victoria Wood Xmas special. Her special from ten years ago was rather soul-destroying so I wasn’t expecting great things; what I saw confirmed my expectations. It was as if she’d delivered a half-hour special and they’d decided to screen an early edit in order to fill an hour slot, by leaving in the longeurs, the jokes that stiffed, and padding it out with her doing that sodding ‘Let’s Do It’ song again. I mean, I’m a big fan of Victoria Wood – 'As Seen On TV', that series of one-off comedy plays, 'dinnerladies'... but everything after that, the Acorn Antiques musical, it just seems half-hearted somehow. Still, it could be worse, it could be French & Saunders.

And, as is tradition, 'Top Of The Pops'. Oh Christ it was bad. Obviously the producer had decided to only pick her favourite acts, and had decided to fill the audience with her middle-aged Facebook list, while whoever was compiling the ‘year in music’ clips was only interested in hip-hop and R-n-B. But worst of all were the presenters, Reggie Yates and Fearne Cotton; the two presenters who got the show axed in the first place. Bringing back TOTP with those two would be like them bringing back Doctor Who with Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. Reggie and Fearne have no chemistry; they’re clearly not even listening to each other, constantly gabbling over each other’s bits like the presenters of a student radio station, with no clue what to do while the other is talking. And delivering the scripted line ‘2009 – a great year in music’ without a shred of self-awareness or irony. I’ve always thought they should revive TOTP – but not with these two, they were the two final nails in the coffin lid. While these two remain attached leech-like to the brand, it has no hope of resurrection.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Shine

My Top 25 Songs Of The Naughties

(following the usual rules - no more than one song per artist, no re-issues etc.)

Listen to it on Spotify

25 Busted – Year 3000
24 Eminem – Stan
23 Goldfrapp – Ooh La La
22 Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out
21 Electric Six – Gay Bar
20 S Club 7 – Don't Stop Movin'
19 Kaiser Chiefs – I Predict A Riot
18 McFly – Lies
17 Lily Allen – Not Fair
16 Elvis Presley – A Little Less Conversation (JXL Remix)
15 Gabriella Cilmi – Sweet About Me
14 The Divine Comedy – Perfect Lovesong
13 Gorillaz – 19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)
12 La Roux – Bulletproof
11 Kate Nash – Pumpkin Soup
10 The Feeling – I Thought It Was Over
9 Sugababes – About You Now
8 Duffy – Mercy
7 Robbie Williams – Supreme
6 KT Tunstall – Suddenly I See
5 The Darkness – I Believe In A Thing Called Love
4 Mika – Grace Kelly
3 Scissor Sisters – I Don't Feel Like Dancin'
2 Girls Aloud – Love Machine
1 Take That – Shine

Friday, 25 December 2009

Personal Jesus

The Story Of The Nativity

Based on the Gospels of Luke and Matthew

Using all the bits which are usually left out, and leaving out all the bits which are usually left in.

In Bethlehem there once was an unmarried couple, Mary and Joseph, who didn’t even live together. Joseph is visited by an un-named angel who tells him, regarding Mary, to ‘take her as a wife’ (in other words to have sex with her) and have a son who will be called Jesus. This he does, getting Mary pregnant. They then get married.

Not long after, Mary visits a friend called Elizabeth who was technically unable to have children but who now finds herself to be miraculously pregnant. This sort of thing happens quite often in the New Testament, it seems. It’s Elizabeth who declares that Mary is now the ‘mother of the Lord’.

Mary and Joseph move in together, and not much happens until Mary gives birth, not in a manger, but at home. King Herod has been dead for a while and the Romans don’t interfere in Judean life very much, so things are pretty quiet. No-one turns up with gifts and there are no unusual astronomical phenomena to speak of.

About a month or so later, Mary and Joseph take the Christ child to the Temple of Jerusalem to have part of his dick chopped off. He bleeds quite badly (thus beginning the redemption of man). They then sacrifice some pigeons on his behalf and chat with an old bloke called Simeon and an old lady called Anna who declare the blood-soaked infant as the saviour of the nation of Jerusalem.

Joseph is then visited by another angel in a dream, telling him to take his newborn son to Israel. Joseph decides to ignore this and they choose to settle in Nazareth instead.

Second greatest story ever told!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

I Was Born On Christmas Day

So this is Christmas. And the story of the nativity.

A story so dramatic it’s only mentioned in two of the gospels; two very contradictory accounts. Both gospels seems to be awkward attempts to reconcile the Old Testament prophecy about a Messiah born in Bethlehem with the idea that it’s Jesus of Nazareth. Luke has Jesus’ parents of Nazareth travelling to Bethlehem for the birth; Matthew has Jesus’ parents of Bethlehem relocating to Nazareth after his birth.

Of course, these solutions create more continuity problems than they solve; according to Luke, Mary and Joseph are attending the census of Quirinius at the behest of the Emperor Augustus (which means it happens ten years after the recorded death of Herod, who is still King is Matthew’s version of events). And the Romans did not conduct censuses of non-Roman citizens, requiring them to return to the town of their birth; if you think about it, it’s a rather impractical way of going about it – all you would have to do is stay at home and you wouldn’t have to pay any taxes!

The miracle of the virgin birth. Assuming you’re okay about the fact that the word ‘virgin’ is a mis-translation of the original descriptor for Mary (something closer to ‘maiden’ or ‘young woman’). Bizarrely, both gospels give detailed (but differing) accounts of how Jesus is descended from David via his father Joseph, even though both gospels make it clear that Joseph is not actually his father. Of course, this is all about trying to make the ‘story’ fit the various ‘facts’ established in the Old Testament.

So an angel – possibly Gabriel, possibly not – comes to either Mary or Joseph in a dream (but not both). They either travel to Bethelehem for a Roman census or reside there already. Mary then gives birth in a stable (according to Luke only – Matthew has Jesus as a home-birth). An unspecified number of shepherds or an unspecified number of Magi attend the child (but not both). Magi being, of course, the term for priests of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia (Zoroastrian translating as ‘followers of the star’). A giant lobster may have also have been in attendance, according to the Gospel of Richard Curtis.

After which, either Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents (copy and pasted from accounts of Moses’ birth – I hardly need say there is no record of any such massacre in any reliable or remotely contemporaneous historical account) before eventually ending up in Nazareth, or they take the baby to Jeruslam to have its penis pointlessly mutilated according to Jewish tradition before returning happily to Nazareth.

And was there a magic star? Not according to Luke’s version of events (the shepherds were summoned by an angel, or possibly by a travelling spaceman, according to the gospel of Chris De Burgh). It might have been a comet (though the dates don’t match) certainly wasn’t a conjunction of planets – there wasn’t a significant one around then, and even when they do happen, they are barely noticable).

The greatest story ever told? Possibly. But with the emphasis very much on the word ‘story’.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Best

Jonny’s best TV shows of 2009

The Inbetweeners Award for Genuinely Brilliant Sitcom:

Miranda

The Family Guy Award for Sitcom Maintaining Total Brilliance:

The Big Bang Theory

The Not Going Out Award for Suddenly Much Improved Sitcom:

Benidorm

The Sunshine Award for Most Cruelly Under-rated Sitcom:

Krod Mandoon And His Flaming Sword Of Fire


The Thick Of It Award for Most Tiresome Over-rated Sitcom I Didn’t Like:

Curb Your Enthusiasm


The Mitchell And Webb Award for Most Consistently Brilliant Sketch Show:

The Armstrong And Miller Show

The Collision award for Genuinely Brilliant Drama:

Unforgiven

The Spooks Award for Drama Maintaining Total Brilliance:

House

The Torchwood Award for Suddenly Much Improved Drama:

24

The Sopranos Award for Most Tiresome Over-rated Drama I Didn’t Like:

The Wire

The Top Of The Pops Award for Show Not On Very Much This Year For No Very Good Reason:

Doctor Who

The Primeval Award for Show Most Unfairly Axed:

Pushing Daisies

The Only Connect Award for Most Compelling Game Show:

Pointless

The Andy Parsons Award for Most Irritating Panel Show Contestant:

Noel Fielding

The Bill Bailey Award for Most Missed Panel Show Contestant:

Frankie Boyle

The Digital On Screen Graphic Award for Single Most Irritating Thing On Television:

The BBC sticking a black-and-white film effect on library footage of Somali pirates

The Stephen Fry Award for General Frussity Mimbleness:

David Mitchell

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Christmas Round At Ours

It’s not that I don’t like Xmas. I do. I like the presents. I like the music. I like the parties. I like the decorations. I love LoveActually, The Muppet Christmas Carol and The Flint Street Nativity. I even like the hats you get in crackers.

But I really can’t stand Xmas food. It’s abominable. It’s like the sort of stuff people would scrape together during rationing. It’s all stodge made up of leftovers. I mean, what the hell is a Christmas pudding supposed to taste like? Tarmac? Creosote? I’m sorry, but any dish where the preparation includes ‘Setting it on fire for a bit’ is not going to be of the highest culinary quality.

I don’t mind brussels sprouts, though anyone who has to live with me after I’ve eaten them has serious cause for complaint. Turkey is alright, though basically it’s just a very large, very dry chicken. But Xmas cake? It’s like a normal cake that has rotted. And as for mince pies, jesus! Not even a dog would eat those if it wasn’t starving. Those little sods could survive a nuclear holocaust, and they’d still taste the same afterwards. My better half bought some ‘mince puffs’; I told her it wasn’t politically correct to call them that any more.

Mulled wine? Excuse me, I don’t have a cold, I like my wine chilled, not heated up and with random herbs strewn across the surface.

Plus there’s the whole Christmas holiday. Where you can’t do any work, where you can’t go out, can’t see your friends, where someone else is deciding when you eat, and how much gets put on your plate, where you even have to take a vote on what you watch on television, even though it doesn’t really matter because inevitably people will be talking, texting, farting and snoring throughout. I mean, it’s all appreciated. But if anyone wonders why I’m so miserable and spend the whole time reading...

Monday, 21 December 2009

It Feels Like Christmas

Christmas traditions.

The Muppet Christmas Carol. Obviously. Best film version of the story; best film version of any Dickens novel. Not only does it follow the book surprisingly closely, by incorporating the descriptive text into Gonzo’s narration, you get bits of the novel left out of other adaptations. It’s devastatingly moving without ever being sentimental. The songs are glorious. The only flea in the ointment is that it is still impossible to get a DVD of the film, in widescreen, which hasn’t had 'When Love Is Gone' edited out. A crucial part of the story!


Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Okay, I can’t quite watch this every Christmas, but every other one, alternating with 'Gene Wilder And The Chocolate Factory' and 'The Wizard Of Oz'. ‘Chitty’ is, of course, a canonical James Bond film; produced by Cubby Broccoli, directed by Ken ‘Casino Royale’ Hughes, written by Roald ‘You Only Live Twice’ Dahl and Richard ‘most of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s Bond movies’ Maibaum based on the novel by Ian Fleming, it stars Q and the villain is played by Goldfinger. Hell, even the title is a bit like 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang', the song from 'Thunderball'.

The Flint Street Nativity. A wonderful one-off play made by ITV, written by Tim Firth. It’s about a school nativity play, where the kids are played by adult actors, all giving career-best performances. It’s a brilliantly written piece, with so much detail, such well-drawn characters, with stories both heartbreaking and extremely funny and I can’t understand why they don’t repeat it every year. And Frank Skinner’s performance as a football-obsessed young boy played King Herod is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Particularly the bit where he has to climb the steps back up to his throne.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Some People Never Know

On a forum in which I participate, various people have taken it upon themselves to psychoanalyze the personality of one of my friends. It’s a bizarre thing to read. I imagine it would be even more bizarre to be the subject. People who haven’t actually met the person in question seem all-too-eager to find fault.

The temptation is, naturally, to defend my friend. But I won’t. Because in the world of the internet, that would be to concede that the matter was even worthy of debate. ‘Don’t dignify it with a response’. There’s no point. Nobody in the history of the internet has ever had their opinion changed by someone else correcting them.

“Oh, thank you for pointing out the flaws in my argument, and providing me with facts which support an alternative thesis, I have now changed my view as a result.”

THIS NEVER HAPPENS.

No, instead it will only serve to prolong the discussion. Because there is no point in arguing with people who are self-evidently wrong. It’s like arguing with someone who says the Beatles were crap. I mean, if someone holds that opinion, that’s okay, but clearly they are not the type of person who is ever going to let ‘facts’ intrude upon their world view. They’ve made up their mind - and now they’ve closed it.

Besides, I know how wrong ‘public impressions’ can be. I’m sure, to several, I come across as a complete dickhead, obnoxious, surly, unapproachable. When, to me, I’m merely struggling to overcome my own insecurity, awkwardness, and embarrassment.

And anyway – the whole business is simply a Rorschach test; people projecting their own personal issues onto somebody they don’t know, where their opinion tells you very little about the subject, but rather a lot about the person doing the criticising.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

One Last Love Song

Saturday, went to the Corner Store for the second launch party do thing for Rob Shearman’s Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical, a collection of short stories what he did the writing of. Haven’t read any of them so far, but no need, because Rob himself read a couple of stories aloud at the event. One about a pig in the Garden of Eden composing love songs for Eve; another about a kid who composes a love song in a world where all that matters is the ranking of the top thousand love songs.

In the second story, I detected a little hint of that bitterness that all writers share; that success, when it comes, is a fluke; that the more effort and emotion you put in, the more elusive success becomes; that things that are derivative tend to do well; and how irritating it is when someone younger and more talented comes along and does so much better than you. All about recapturing past glories.

Which reminds me of a thing. A friend passed on some kind comments to me about my Doctor Who books. Which was absolutely lovely and appreciated... except I did write them over five years ago, in many ways they were written by a different me, and it would be nice if someone had a good word to say about something I’ve done since.

How ungrateful, eh?

Still, on the other hand, Rob did admit the vast and significant influence I have had on his work. I haven’t any influence at all but it was nice for him to pretend.

Anyway, it was a lovely afternoon, and I now have a copy of the book, which I shall read and review, his previous one was excellent so this one should be even better,

Friday, 18 December 2009

Haunted Henry

Snowed a lot last night. Icy this morning. Normally I wouldn’t mind, for me weather is something that happens to other people, but today I had to make my way all the across London to Labroke Grove for a recording session. It was a mammoth trek. Particularly as the studio in question is located equidistantly distant from the three nearest tube stations.

All worth it, as I had the most lovely of days. Of course, what was recorded is still TBA and under wraps and Strictly Confidential. Suffice it to say the script was mine, it wasn’t too bad, though I think I did a better job on the first half than the second, but it didn’t matter as we had five marvellous actors who easily disguised the deficiencies of my dialogue and who, I hope, had a lot of fun with it. It should be good. Another thing for me to plug on this blog, anyway. I shall go into detail when it’s announced.

Thinking of how lovely the marvellous actors were, it reminds me of something I heard someone say, it may even have been me who said it. Which is this; as an actor, you never know who might be in a position to offer you work in future, so it’s a basic job requirement to be enthusiastic, warm and patient, and in particular to say complimentary things about the script if the writer happens to be skulking nearby. If you can’t fake that, then maybe you’re not cut out for the greasepaint. Even if the script is abysmal, even if you loathed every second, tell the writer how lovely their words were, and tell the director you had a lovely time and can’t wait to work with them again.

Never mind Hamlet; that’s the real test of an actor.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Over My Shoulder

Sometimes fans can be their own worst enemies. How? I shall explain.

It’s not enough for fans to enjoy a finished, end product. They have to know all about it beforehand, during the process of creation. Which, of course, means the fans end up ‘spoiler’-ing themselves, as their first experience of the end product is not a polished graded edit or final mix, but a dodgy rough-cut or work-mix, maybe not in the best quality, maybe incomplete; and even then, the fans know all the surprises in advance.

I’m not going to complain about that. Because fans ‘spoiler’-ing something for themselves is their own business and their own problem. It doesn’t make any difference to the end product, it doesn’t make the creative process more difficult.

What does make it more difficult, though, is the fact that if someone is watching you, suddenly you’re placed in a position where it would look bad if you were to change your mind or admit to having made a mistake. Suddenly your indecision or blunder would be public knowledge.

Which is a problem, because in any creative process, you need to have the freedom to fuck up. To fuck up freely, in private. Even, on occasion, to be able to fire people, in private, for the good of the project. As soon as the project is under public scrutiny, it becomes harder to do that. I mean, every writer has written a dodgy first draft, which they have then polished before submitting; how could they work if they knew there was a chance the dodgy first draft would be published? Every song has started life as a dodgy demo, sung half out-of-tune, with placeholder lyrics. Every film is edited together from the best performances, not the takes where the actors fluffed their lines.

Reminds me when I used to work in the music industry, and we were forever trying to prevent things like release dates and cover artwork being leaked before they had been approved by the artist and set-in-stone; because these thing inevitably changed at the last minute due to unforeseeable factors, and whenever they did, it made the label look incompetent, and reflected badly on the artist.

Yes, once the finished article is out there, then release the working drafts, the early demos, tell the story of how things went wrong during production if you like. But during the process itself... no.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Heat Is On

Let us, for the sake of amusement, pretend the Climate Change sceptics are right.

Maybe the Earth’s climate is changing – but not as a result of man’s activities. All the coal power stations, all the cars, all the cows, don’t make the slightest difference. It’s all a natural process. If there are more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to global warming, then it’s due to them being released from peat bogs.

Well, if this is the case, then isn’t that EVEN MORE CAUSE TO PANIC?

I mean, if it’s a man-made problem, then at least we are in a position to mitigate it at source. If it’s a natural problem, then all we can hope to do is to alleviate the effects.

It’s the difference between your house being on fire, because you’ve left the gas on, and your house being on fire, even though you don’t have gas. In the former case, at least you have the hope that if you switch off the gas off the fire might not increase.

But in both instances, you still have to fight the fire.

If climate change is a natural process – it isn’t, but just for the sake of amusment let’s pretend – then Carbon Capture technologies are even more essential.

Of course, the argument is that if it’s a natural process, then the Earth will sort it out of its own accord, just as it has done in the past. Which is sort-of true, if you overlook the fact that the ‘sorting out’ took millions of years. In the short-term, the only way the planet will deal with the problem will be by increasing the frequency of droughts, floods and hurricanes. Which, admittedly, will help to reduce the source of global warming, over-population, but in a rather unpleasant fashion.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Land Of Make Believe

So now I have finally watched all of Doctor Who. Every existing episode, and the soundtracks, off-screen photos and novelisations of every missing one. Now that I’ve finished I can finally move on to something else. Let’s hope they don’t do something insane like bring it back.

My ‘last’ story was The Trial Of A Time Lord parts thirteen and fourteen, or as it is also known, Time Inc. Or The Ultimate Foe, though this is a Bad Fact. I’d seen most of it, but the second half of episode thirteen had always been a grey blur, thanks to weather interference in the Points West region. Until now.

Have to say, I wasn’t impressed. It’s the last episode written by Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes, shortly before his death, but you can tell his heart really isn’t in it, because it’s a complete mess. The first half takes place almost entirely on one set, if it weren’t for one cut-away it would all be one continuous scene. Which isn’t a problem in itself, except the dialogue hasn’t been thought through – there’s no progression, it goes around in circles, re-iterates the same points needlessly. There’s no real sense of drama at all, it’s all just posturing and nostril-flaring.

On the plus side, the Master turns up, enjoying himself enormously. I love Anthony Ainley’s master. I love the way he speaks in musical scales, up five notes and down five notes. Try it. What-makes-you-think-I-want-your-forgive-ness? Why meeeeee? Chancellor Flaviour! He’s brilliant. As camp as hell, but he pitches it perfectly. And he’s given lots of fun lines to deliver.

Unlike Bonnie Langford. Mel is written so badly. There’s that hilarious line about being ‘as truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come’. Truthful and honest? No! But she has worse lines. ‘How utterly evil’ In the out-takes, she even says ‘You beast!’. Poor Bonnie. She tries, bless her, but all the hands-on-hips acting isn’t going to excuse that dialogue. And it’s by Robert Holmes! Incredible. And heartbreaking.

The plot revelations come fast and thick. Apparently the Time Lords decided to cover up their plan to move Earth and rename in Ravalox... by using the plan as evidence for the prosecution in a court case. Eh? The Valeyard is a future incarnation of the Doctor – sort-of – according to a third party in a thrown-away piece of dialogue. What is the Master’s plan? (It gets even more confusing in part fourteen, where the Master seems to want to control Gallifrey via the Matrix, but also wants to steal the secrets from the Matrix for personal gain) There’s a long, tedious discussion about who has access to the Matrix – via the Key of Rassilon – only for it to turn out that the Master has a key, the Valeyard has a key, and the doorway to the Matrix is left open and is a short walk down the corridor anyway so that people can come and go as they please.

Oh, and apparently Peri did not die. Brilliant. Undermine the best dramatic moment this year, why don’t you?

Anyway, after about fifteen minutes of this, the Valeyard runs out of the courtroom, behind the Doctor’s back – oh, this is blocked-out so badly, despite Chris Clough’s best efforts to edit around it – and it’s up to the Doctor to chase him in there, taking Glitz with him so he has someone to talk to.

And from now on it’s all new to me.

Location filming. At night! Bloody hell.

Not sure about the scene where the Doctor looks in the barrel. So contrived. And the whole ‘it’s an illusion, it can’t hurt you’ thing just undercuts the jeopardy.

Love the Victorian atmos. And what-the-fuck, someone’s chucked a spear at Glitz. Never knew that happened!

I thought there was someone business with the exploding feathers in this episode, but no, that must’ve been made up by Pip and Jane Baker for part fourteen. Cool idea.

Although the cod-Dickens stuff is all rather fun, and quite surreal and sinister, I also get a sense that Robert Holmes had run out of plot, and like Dame Sally Markham had said ‘How many pages?’ before just copying out scenes from Bleak House and the stuff with the Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit. It’s fine – and I loved the bit with the two Mr Popplewicks, never knew about that – but it is egregious time-filling.

Why does the Doctor sign away his regenerations? Don’t get it at all. Clunky, oh-this-will-have-to-do writing.

And then the Doctor opens a doorway and finds himself on a beach. Now, for some reason I’d always assumed this moment would’ve involved an effect. Either we see a beach through a doorway, or the Doctor emerges from a doorway on the beach, like in, oh, that old schools’ programme where that happened. But no, it’s just a cut. Bit of a disappointment.

And that’s about it. Some hands appear from beneath the ground and drag the Doctor under the sand. Doesn’t matter though, as we already know it’s an illusion.

Part fourteen... and time for some controversial opinions. It suddenly gets a lot, lot better! Episode thirteen is tired, perfunctory, padded, indulgent, muddled and dull. Episode fourteen is total fucking insane gibbering nonsense, but at least it’s exciting.

Love the bit with the Valeyard jumping all over the place. He reminds me of the witch from Chorlton and the Wheelies. Can’t follow the dialogue at all... it’s like he’s giving us a ‘story so far’ but without actually explaining it because nobody knows what the story so far is. Basically, all you need to know is that they’re in a dream world and its a duel to the death. Fair enough.

Marsh gas! But this is not illusory marsh gas, it’s real? How the hell does that work? Never mind – into the beach hut, which turns out to be the Master’s TARDIS.

The Master brainwashes the Doctor. Using the power of disco. Er... Not Colin Baker’s finest moment.

And then there’s a bit I really love. The Doctor is left in the courtyard of the pottery museum, only to be rescued by a ‘shadowy’ Mel figure, who leads him back to the courtroom, where the Inquisitor passes sentence of execution... only for this to turn out to be an illusion, because they’re still in the Matrix. This is brilliant, I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a terrifically cool twist. And what makes it even better is that we learn that the Doctor was never taken in by it. Knock Pip and Jane all you like, but they write the Doctor as an intelligent character, one step ahead of the opposition, and that counts for a lot.

The real Mel runs into the Matrix – oh, god, that whole business with the Keeper of the Matrix sticking his foot out to trip her, how dreadful – to rescue the Doctor from performing Sidney Carlton heroics. A line which left fandom bewildered for years; I’m surprised Pip and Jane didn’t spell out the reference, as they do so laboriously (and patronisingly) with the Hamlet line at the beginning of the episode.

Then there’s the marvellous bit with the exploding feathers. Great stuff. And a lovely scene where the Master fails to hypnotise Glitz. Okay, the dialogue is... first draft, but it’s a nice idea. Not sure about the Master’s chest of jewels, though. Looks like a load of tat painted gold.

There’s another great scene, with Glitz coming to an arrangement with Popplewick, delivering the Doctor in return for the ‘secrets’, only for Popplewick to attempt to turn the tables by pointing his gun at Glitz, only for Glitz to reveal he removed the bullets earlier. Okay, so it’s the same twist as in two episodes ago, but it’s still a good twist!

Then the Master plugs the secrets into his TARDIS console – ‘Moments like these must be savoured...’ and it all goes blurry and black and white. I thought that was just in the Points West region! Oh, when will villains learn, always check for booby-traps! Particularly the Master, who made exactly the same mistake in his last story, and the one before that, and the one before that, and the one before that. He’s a twat, really.

And a final confrontation between the Doctor and the Valeyard. Okay, so the list of Time Lords crossed out is an absurd, convenient contrivance. And the dialogue is as loopy as tin of hoops; Pip and Jane are basically trying to think of villainous things for the Valeyard to say, because they don’t have time to work out a plot-based discussion. The Valeyard’s ultimate weapon turns out to be a Megabyte Modem – with that, he could download pornography in a matter of DECADES – which looks rather like a mobile disco. But the Doctor blunders in, like an imbecile, and triggers a ray-phase shift, thus preventing the catharsis of spurious morality.

So the Valeyard wasn’t trying to kill the Doctor – or was he? Was it all a ruse to kill the Time Lords in the court room? I like the idea of the Trial screen being the weapon – a neat twist. It’s just that other moments, like the Doctor and Valeyard’s ‘climactic’ struggle, are so rushed and bungled. And, beyond a surreal face-off between good and evil, it never really begins to make any kind of sense.

But given the circumstances Pip and Jane were working under – three days to come up with a script, based only on the script of episode thirteen, with locations, sets and cast already committed –they did an extremely good job; it’s a massive improvement over Robert Holmes’ talky, lethargic final episode, and contains a hell of a lot more surprises and imaginative ideas.

Two more observations. The Doctor’s final scene, the ‘carrot juice’; the implication would seem to be that it leads directly into the first scene of the Vervoids story, with the Doctor drinking carrot juice and exercising. Which is a nice idea.

And finally, observation made by my better half – this episode, like nearly all the others from this year, also ends with the camera crash-zooming in on the Doctor’s face.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Good Morning Judge

Trial Of A Time Lord Part Thirteen - as transmitted in the west country.

(This is the only way I have ever seen this episode... so far.)

Telesnap reconstruction. All images (c) BBC.

1. Those unforgettable opening titles designed by Sid Sutton. Not looking bad so far.


2. The Doctor has been charged with destroying an entire species – a charge known as ‘genocide’. Which does not make him happy. In fact, it makes him extremely unhappy.


3. The Keeper Of The Matrix says no-one can enter the Matrix without the Key of Rassilon. What he has got the only one of.


4. The Doctor protests his innocence. Meanwhile, over on TVS, Blockbusters.


5. Not for the last time, the episode tastefully switches to black and white. With a hint of green. It looks a bit like a Jon Pertwee story now, doesn’t it?


6. Bonnie Langford turns up and launches into a rendition of ‘There’s No Business Like Showbusiness’.


7. The Doctor is fighting for his life... against Blockbusters on the other side.


8. Hello, who’s that on telly? It’s only the Master in the matrix! Either that or he’s going for the Gold Run.


9. Lynda Bellingham thinks it’s an episode of Loose Women. And wonders where John Barrowman has got to. He is such an amusing gay man.


10. Now the episode switches back to black and white... and lilac. It’s a bit like a Prince video.


11. See how much nicer the Doctor’s outfit looks with the colour turned off.


12. Glitz examines the set. ‘Must’ve cost a few grotsits’, he says, sarcastically.


13. The Master explains a bit more of the plot. Yes, the plot, Doctor! I know the plot! Mweh mweh mweh!


14. The Doctor learns the terrible truth. He has Paul Nicholas’ hair.


15. The Valeyard wants Paul Nicholas’ hair too. From all his remaining regenerations!


16. The Valeyard has buggered off into the matrix, which is the cue for the Keeper Of The Matrix to hitch up his skirts and give us a quick tap dance routine.


17. We enter the nightmare virtual reality world of the Matrix. I think that might be a gerbil.


18. Doctor Who makes his final appearance in the episode in full colour.


19. That’s Glitz following him into the Matrix. Or a close-up of a window frame.


20. The Doctor ponders his fate – as a caption card for the A-Team on TVS breaks through from another dimension. This also makes him extremely unhappy.


21. The Doctor confronts the mysterious Mr Eddie Yates. Or an Ice Warrior.


22. The Master explains that Peri isn’t dead after all. Mwah mwah mwah! That said, he launches a space javelin from out of his face.


23. Bonnie Langford protests the Doctor’s innocence again. I think it’s the local news on the other side. The river Tamar has just flooded its banks, it would appear.


24. The Doctor and Glitz ponder the inscrutable and entirely invisible Mr Eddie Yates. What is his secret?


25. Unless the episode contains a close-up of a piece of wood, not a clue.


26. Lynda Bellingham’s head is nearly sliced off by the Master’s space javelin.


27. Looks like it might be a big trifle of some kind.


28. More wood grain in close-up. Or maybe it’s a recently-ploughed field?



29. The Valeyard appears – at the seaside. As you can clearly see.


30. A brief cameo appearance from erstwhile producer, John Nathan-Turner, apparently being mauled by a small dog.


31. The terrifying climax as the Doctor is dragged under the sand. At least this way you can’t make out his nasal hair.


32. And finally, those unforgettable closing titles designed by Sid Sutton.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Bombers

Currently struggling through season 6 of 24 – the one where Sky stopped half-way through the run, the one where most viewers had given up by that point. The one in which a nuclear bomb goes off in Los Angeles and no-one minds. The one with Jack’s dad and brother and Abu Fayed and Gredenko and whatsisname playing Tom Lennox, you know, that little guy who is in everything.

We’re on episode 19, and the will to live is not strong. The main storyline, about the suitcase nooks, reached a dramatic conclusion, and then kept on going. Meanwhile, in the White House, the acting vice-president, who resembles an acne-scarred iceberg, continues to growl at people like the man from the Carslberg adverts.

I mean, yes, things still explode occasionally, though far too much of each episode is now spent with people in CTU telling each other the plot, or moaning that someone else at CTU got told the plot first. The normal soap opera time-filling nonsense of ‘Why did I have to hear about it from Hilda, you should’ve come to me first!’

But I’m still doing the drinking game, for every mention of ‘protocol’, ‘division’, ‘the field’ or the phone going boop-boop-BABA!!!.

But what’s making it hard to watch is the plot has run-up-the-hill, run-down-the-hill syndrome. Possibly best illustrated by, er, episode two of Russell T Davies ‘Mine All Mine’, in which all the characters run up the hill, thinking there might be a legal problem with their claim to Swansea, and then run back down again, when it turns out there isn’t a problem after all. At the end of which, the viewer is left wondering quite why they bothered giving an hour of their life to an episode which ended up precisely back where it started. It’s not quite padding – because it always looks like it might be leading somewhere – but that makes it all the more frustrating when it doesn’t.

Oh, and the really annoying thing about this series is that we get to see Jack Bauer’s dad – and he’s NOT played by Donald Sutherland. I ask you, what is the point?

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Murder Mystery

Next up as part of The Trial Of A Time lord, it’s the Vervoid story. The crap one, as the fan consensus would have it. That’s certainly how I remember it.

Except it’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s a very well put-together story, loads of stuff going on, lots of intrigue, and dozens of clever twists. Best of all is that the Doctor is written extremely well, he is at the centre of the plot for once, he’s given the chance to be charming, to be courageous, and to be intelligent, always one step ahead of the game, like an intergalactic Hercule Poirot. There’s also a great little comedy scene where he’s failing to get a word in edgeways between Bonnie Langford and Honor Blackman.

The monsters aren’t too shoddy either. Okay, it’s never good when you have scenes of two guys in foam rubber chatting amongst themselves – ‘we are doing splendidly’ – but on the other hand, they’re built up extremely well before their first appearance, and they move well, characters seldom get out of a scene with them alive, and at the end of the story they die marvellously. Only problem is, they look like what a gay man might imagine a woman’s down-below rude bits to look like.

There’s lots of great death scenes, love all the stuff with the thorns being injected into people, and a couple of great cliff-hangers. Alright, so there was a rule at the time that each episode had to end into a crash-zoom of Colin Baker’s face as he was doing I’ve-just-smelled-a-fart acting, all nostrils, narrowed eyes, and the lowering of an eyebrow in righteous indignation.

The plot is great. Admittedly it doesn’t hang together if you think about it too hard – it’s very Agatha Christie in that respect. For instance, the plot hinges on a scene where a guy dressed as a Mogarian is poisoned. There’s a lovely reveal where it turns out the Doctor already knew the guy dressed as a Mogarian wasn’t really a Mogarian. But you’re also left slightly bemused that no-one thinks to wonder ‘who gave this guy the poison?’ Was it the villainous Janet, who also seems to be the one who kills the remaining two Mogarians in episode four (they seem to think their attacker intends to serve them drinks)? Either that or it’s Malcolm Tierney dressed as a space stewardess.

I'm also confused why the other two Mogarians didn't suddenly notice, and say, 'Hang on, there are three of us now, where did the other bugger come from?'

Watching the DVD bonus bollocks of deleted scenes, it’s interesting how much of the narrative was sorted out in the edit; the writers’ original intention was that the viewer would know all along that Grenville/one of the Mogarians was up to no good, always lurking around the hydroponic centre. All sensibly cut by Chris Clough.

So why don’t fans like it? Well, the special effects aren’t very special; even at the time, I remember thinking they weren’t up to the standard of what Doctor Who had been doing ten years previously, never mind Star Wars. And the sets are a bit stagy, the shoulder pads are enormous, and there’s that guy with the HUGE AMOUNT OF FACIAL HAIR who turns up at the end.

The dialogue comes in for a lot of criticism, and to be fair it is rather prolix and circumlocutory, if not sesquipedalian. grandiloquent and fusty. It’s very heightened, occasionally laughably so, but most of the time I think they get away with it. I can’t help feeling there is a double standard at work that fans slag off Pip and Jane Baker and yet praise Robert Holmes for whacking out nonsense like ‘I intend to adumbrate two typical instances from separate epistopic interfaces of the spectrum.’

Unlike a few stories from the following years, the dialogue is at least clear enough for the viewer to understand what is meant, what is going on and what people are up to. What’s irritating, though, aren’t so much the antediluvian references to ‘brown studies’, ‘Judas goats’ or the use of the word ‘bromide’ in its non-chemical sense, but the jokes – particularly that whole bewildering business with the ears, carrot and Neddy in the first TARDIS scene, in which dialogue, characterisation, incidental music and costume all compete to win the ‘who is the most insane this week’ award. (The rest of the time, when it’s not trying to underscore a humorous moment, the music’s actually very effective).

No, fans real problem with this story is that it introduces the character of Mel, as played by Bonnie Langford. Which was largely because of the showbiz baggage and associations that Bonnie Langford brought to the role; she’s a fine actress, but playing a super-perky health-food-and-exercise freak wasn’t exactly going to confound any preconceptions. The role was, apparently, created with her in mind, which is part of the problem; Mel might be a computer programmer from Pease Pottage, but really she is the type of girl who is only two minutes away from belting ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and, by casting Bonnie Langford in the part, it didn’t give her an opportunity to demonstrate any acting ability, and it meant the character of Mel never really came across as an individual in her own right; it was all a bit too ‘nail on head’. Which is surprising, given how often the show was casting against type at the time. In retrospect, casting Bonnie Langford was fine; casting her to play a caricature of her on-screen persona was the mistake.

But if you can overlook that – which is easier, with the benefit of hindsight, with the distance of two decades, with the knowledge that Bonnie would not be the last famous face to be cast as a companion – if you can get past all that, ignore the context, then the character is great fun, she works really well with a more thoughtful sixth Doctor, and her performance is faultless and extremely likeable.

So I suppose I’m saying I’m a fan, and I really enjoyed the story. Next up is episode thirteen of the Trial, which I’ve never really seen properly before...

Friday, 11 December 2009

Insomniac

Insomnia is a sod.

I get it every now and then. Months will pass, I’ll be fine, and then, with a dull thud, along will come a month without a proper night’s sleep. Of nights spent lying in the gloom, trying desperately hard not to try to fall asleep in the hope that you will fall asleep.

What causes it? Lack of exercise, probably; certainly, jogging can make it go away, but isn’t really an option at two in the morning. Worry, sometimes; sometimes I’ll have The Fear about something, about money, about deadlines, about relationships, about where my life is heading, about the future of the planet. Sometimes, like Mr Worry in Roger Hargreaves’ seminal work, I’ll even worry about having nothing to worry about.

Worst of all is when you have something important to do the next day; a crucial meeting, or bout of work, or travel adventure, that you know you need to be wide-awake for. That you know is dependent upon you having had a good night’s sleep the night before. And so, with every hour that laboriously ticks by, there is the dread that you are sabotaging the following day simply by lying awake, worrying about the fact that by lying awake worrying about it you are, unintentionally, sabotaging it.

Sometimes it’ll be racing thoughts. Unable to switch the brain off, thinking of things to think about. Writing stuff down helps; nothing worse than thinking, ‘I’d better not forget that’ which means the brain will endlessly re-wind over the same list of points, fretting of forgetting. Sometimes racing thoughts are good, too many great ideas at once, but usually they are pointless; thinking of clever things to say in an argument that happened sixteen years ago, trying to remember lists of Facts, mentally playing computer games, filling out scrabble boards and sudukos. Silliest of all is the feeling of sudden, wide-waking panic, remembering that French homework you still haven’t handed in, twenty years late, or that angry woman who shouted at you in the street for accidentally standing on their heel in nineteen ninety-four and who didn’t accept your apology even though it wasn’t your fault, it was theirs.

And sometimes it’ll just be because I can’t relax, because I haven’t remembered to get comfortable, and after three or four hours I’ll realise I’ve been trying to sleep with my head piled up on folded-up pillows with both hands clenched into fists, wrists twisted back under my stomach with one foot trapped in the nook between bed and mattress.

Oh, and alcohol and caffeine and buggered-up sleep patterns and sneeziness. Those are the other reasons.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Losing Your Affection

How to get a hit show axed

There’s many reasons why a successful show might be taken off the air. The main one being, an executive whim. But how to turn a success into a failure? There are several methods. You may notice that all of them were used on Doctor Who during the 80’s – and even then it kept on going for four years (a decent run!) after being axed.

Cut the budget - The number one way of killing a show. Not just by preventing it from using exotic locations, special effects, night shoots and from featuring guest stars. The real way a budget cut hurts a show is it means you can’t afford to throw away scripts that aren’t working, you can’t afford to commission spare scripts, you can’t afford to hire the cast for more rehearsal time. Money equals time. But if a show is a hit, the reasoning goes, why can’t it still be a hit with a slightly smaller budget?

Cut the lead time – Due to a commissioner being late with making a decision, or deciding the show should be ready in time for a broadcast date which is only a few months away; this has all the effects of a budget cut without cutting the budget, as it reduces the amount of room for manoeuvre; particularly regarding script preparation and pick-ups and re-shoots.

Change the time slot – If a show is doing well, keep it where it is. Deciding to put it against stronger opposition of a similar demographic – or to play some scheduling version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma with the competing channel – and you’ll start haemorrhaging viewers who have lost track of when it’s on and fallen behind.

Change the lead – A show needs continuity; viewers get to know the characters, that’s why they watch, so you want to change them as little as possible. No more than, say, a third of the cast per season. Anything more than that and not only will the viewers lose interest, but you have too many new cast members who haven’t quite settled into their parts and a team of writers who haven’t quite got a handle on the new characters.

Change the tone – Obvious one this; if it all becomes too flippant, that will put off the viewers who take it seriously. On the other hand, make it too portentous and that will put of the viewers who tune in to be amused. The tone can evolve, but sudden all-or-nothing shifts just makes people think they’ve tuned in to the wrong show.

Change the format – Similar to the above; if people have got used to a certain type of story being told, then it’s a gradual shift to telling an alternative form of story. And if a show’s USP is a certain location, or a certain profession, etc. then that’s what people will be expecting to see. The same goes for pace, episode duration, frequency etc.

And finally

Disappear up its own arse – When a show is all about itself, where each episode requires the viewer to have seen previous episodes in order to understand what is at stake, where pay offs and explanations are endlessly deferred, where characters and concepts are revisited rather than developed or given original twists, where a show becomes shackled by its own past and inward-looking.

Seven ways to kill a hit TV show. Bear it mind, it make take more than one of these. But all seven, and you’re guaranteed to turn a popular success into an overnight flop.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Falling In Love With Myself Again

Looking through some old issues of Doctor Who Magazine – I’m catching up on all the comic strips – a couple of things struck me. I mean, normally I check the letters page to see if there’s anybody I know embarrassing themselves. That’s always fun. And revisiting great articles like Gary Gillatt’s on The Fan Gene, these things should be collected and published again somewhere.

The first thing that struck me was how the return of Doctor Who was reported; in retrospect, it seems obvious, inevitable, but at the time, every glimmer of progress was greeted with suspicion and incredulity, like the boy-who-cried-wolf, taken with a pinch of salt. It’s interesting, though, to spot the first inklings as they materialize; a news story about Russell T Davies having a meeting; Lorraine Heggessy mentioning how she’d love to bring the show back but the BBC don’t have the rights; the BBC website people looking into the issue and discovering that the BBC did have the rights after all; and almost immediately afterwards, the first skittering pebbles of what became the landslide. But most amusing of all is an edition of The Space-Time Telegraph – the piss-take page – which is the first mention anywhere of Russell’s pitch to bring back Doctor Who, about a year before it happened. Uncanny.

The second thing that struck me was an interview I gave about five years ago. There’s a photo of me. I look thin. I still have that t-shirt. And, I don’t know, but I was so full of myself at the time; I think I was attempting to be ‘provocative’ but I just come across as arrogant and belligerent. I mean, I said I’d never work for Big Finish again because my TV career was going so well! Oh, to give that smug shortarse a slap.

In other news. I’ve gone back and filled some of the empty days in this blog with entries from the ‘rainy days’ file; i.e. blogs written early in the year just in case I couldn’t think of things to write. I’ll fill in more empty days as and when I can be arsed. So far, there are missives on the following subjects:

Soundalike recordings
Canned laughter
My time at Richard Huish College
Writer's block
People who take photographs at pop concerts
Why file-sharing is theft
Rewriting
Songs on Greatest Hits which were not singles

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Chocolate

Getting a taxi back home the other night. Despite the fact that it was three o’clock in the morning, and the roads were empty, a half-hour journey took well over an hour. Why? A combination of a sat-nav, and a taxi driver who would only listen to his sat-nav. Never mind that I’ve been living in this neck of the woods for, blimey, seven years, and I must have jogged, cycled, ambled, bussed or car-ed up and down every road in SE London some time or other. I’m not saying I never get lost, but whenever I do get lost, I know exactly how lost I am.

But no use saying to a taxi driver, ‘it’s up here’, or ‘take the next left’ or ‘I’m pretty sure this is Dartford’, all to no avail, because a computer voice keeps telling him to go up roads that are closed off for road-works.

Tis the Christmas party season. In the past, I have occasionally got very, very drunk one or two nights, each December, to celebrate Jesus who either was born or died around this time of year, I forget which. I remember one evening, where I think Hat Trick had a chocolate waterfall like out of Willy Wonka, and I was so overcome with fear I was drinking without ever getting drunk, simply in order to speak to people, because I am not a media party person, and anyway I came home and SUDDENLY that’s when I got drunk ALL AT ONCE. And my flatmate the next morning said hello to me in the kitchen, and asked, ‘Has somebody been cleaning the bathroom? Only every single surface has been cleaned, the carpet’s been washed, even the walls have been scrubbed’.

Moral of this story. Stay away from the chocolate waterfalls.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Losing My Mind

Next up in 'The Trial Of A Time Lord' DVD box set is Mindwarp, a story I’ve watched a couple of times in the last two decades and the one I remember as being the best of the bunch. Which it is.

It’s a sequel to ''Vengance On Varos', and shares not only a Doctor, companion, villain, writer and director, but it also its strange peculiarities of plotting. The story wanders all over the place; we switch from scene to scene seemingly at random, nobody has a plan, and stuff just happens without any reason or dramatic consequence. People get captured and escape, but without any development of character or plot along the way. At least 'Mindwarp' builds to a climax, where 'Vengance On Varos' just grinds to halt.

I think the problem is that it’s a ‘regime change’ story – Doctor Who arrives to find the villains in charge, and so the ‘plot’ is a matter of the Doctor chatting to assorted rebels while the antagonists... just sit there. The baddies don’t have any particular evil plan with a deadline, they don’t need one, but it means there isn’t much impetus to the plot; it’s just a lot of ‘The rebels have escaped, my lord!’ ‘Them find them, you fool!’ It’s exactly the sort of predictable set-up that was parodied in The Lenny Henry Show sketch. ‘Regime change’ stories never work, because villains should have more to do than just skulking about in a control room watching ten closed-circuit televisions at once.

Both stories are a mixture of inventive ideas and corny cliches. They both include a ‘framing narrative’ of people watching the story unfold on television, complaining when scenes are dull, confusing or irrelevant. And both contain a curious admixture of delicious, witty, well-written lines, and heart-sinking non-sequiturs of overwrought construction and clunky cod-Shakespearean formality.

The same applies to the characters; in each story, you have three or four memorable, clearly-motivated, original characters – Sil, Crozier, Kiv, Yrcanos – and three or four dull, under-developed characters – Tuza, Matrona, Frax. The actors do their best but unfortunately the fact that they have been asked to inhabit such hackneyed ciphers means they end up coming across as awkward and wooden. What is Matrona’s job? Half the time she’s a brain surgeon, the other half she’s in charge of serving drinks!

But none of these quibbles matter, because of two things. Firstly, Colin Baker is great in it, he’s particularly hilarious when he’s playing ‘concussed’, and even his gigantic hair and Picasso-quilt coat don’t detract; he’s great at both heroic and unhinged. And Brian Blessed, Patrick Ryecart, Nabil Shaban and Nicola Bryant are all excellent.

And secondly, the ending, which has probably the best twist the series had ever done up to that point, and climaxes with a scene which is both terrifying and heartbreaking.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Runaround On The Underground

Couldn’t sleep last night, well, from about six this morning, so decided to watch the first four episodes of Doctor Who – 'The Trial Of A Time Lord' on DVD. The DVD box had recently become cheap enough for me to afford it. Not one of my favourite stories – it’s sort of four stories in one, none of which are favourites – but I wouldn’t be a Doctor Who fan if I didn’t also have an obsessive drive for absolute completism.

Hadn’t seen The Mysterious Planet for, ooh, must be getting on for almost twenty years now. My main memory of it was that the whole production, in particular the plot, was a bit lukewarm, a bit half-hearted, a bit ‘safe’, and that by this point in his career, Robert Holmes had emptied all his bottom drawers of ideas and was re-hashing old plots. ‘The Caves Of Androzani’ is ‘The Space Pirates’ done right; ‘The Mysterious Planet’ is ‘The Krotons’ with a couple of characters from ‘The Ribos Operation’.

I was wrong. I gave the story too low a mark in my poll! It’s actually all rather good. The villainous robots is quite effective – like a living Henry Moore – if only it had a better voice, dialogue and wasn’t so wobbly. There’s a lot of very funny lines in there and a couple of neat twists. And I love that Doctor Who and Peri are getting on and having fun and playing against the ‘bickering’ dialogue; I’ve said it before, but there was no real difference in how the Peter Davison and Colin Baker Doctor Whos were written, they both insult their companions all the time; the only difference being that Peter played against the lines, with jokey, self-effacing charm, where Colin played the lines as written and came over, very occasionally, as a bit self-centred and brash.

Two other thoughts. Broken Tooth’s real name actually is Broken Tooth because that’s what Balazer calls him when they are reunited. How peculiar!

And secondly – the Time Lords bleep out Glitz’s line in order to cover up the fact that someone broke into the Time Lord’s Matrix Data Bank:

“[they] found a way into the BLEEP BLEEP, the biggest net of information in the universe.”

Which is, er, rather like trying to cover up the Watergate scandal by saying

“they broke into the BLEEP BLEEP, the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee’

Or that guy who broke into the Queen’s bedroom back in 1982;

“he found a way into the BLEEP BLEEP, the room in Buckingham Palace where the current monarch sleeps.”

Saturday, 5 December 2009

I Saw It In The Mirror

Watched Mirrors with Keifer Sutherland last night. Yes, he popped around, just as I was watched a film with him in it. What are the chances?

Two reasons why we’d LoveFilmed this. Firstly, I’d seen a trailer, and it looked okay. And secondly, at the time I was putting it on the list, I was writing a thing which I was worried might be similar, and IN ORDER NOT TO COPY I thought I should check out what had already been done. But now I’m not writing that thing so it doesn’t matter.

It’s a pretty scary film. It’s not as scary as The Ring, but it’s scarier than Dark Water. It shares so many features with these films I think there’s a formula. It’s not just that they’re all sort of based on Far Eastern horror movies (hope Far Eastern isn’t a racist term, no offence intended). They also feature unrelenting rain and English actors, with American accents, playing mysterious, world-weary caretakers who Hold A Terrible Secret. Plus there’s a lot of crumbling buildings, looking things up in musty records, and isolated communities, but if you’re going to complain about those staples turning up in a Ghost Story you might as well complain about them containing ghosts as well.

Oh, and they’re all about separated parents (separated due to financial or work woes), with a couple of kids – a quick shortcut both to family jeopardy and to a reconciliation love story.

As I said, it’s all very well done, if pretty much don’t-fuck-with-the-formula, until the end where it turns into a Bruce Willis movie. I know Keifer is an action hero, and his audience would be expecting that, but it worked against the whole everyman-out-of-his-depth thing and I kept expecting him to call Chloe at CTU for backup.

Protocol!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Love Is Strange

For a while, we planned to have a second reading at our wedding. In the end, we decided against it, but this is what was suggested - lovingly edited down from the original text and reproduced here in a flagrant breach of copyright.

The Reverent Wooing of Archibald by PG Wodehouse.

The story so far; young Archibald Mulliner has fallen in love with Aurelia Cammarleigh and, one night, he has crept outside her bedroom, only to overhear the following conversation:

“Archie Mulliner?” said Aurelia wistfully. “There was something about him. I liked the way his ears wiggled. And I had always heard he was such a genial, merry old soul. Algy Wymondham-Wymondham told me that his imitation of a hen laying an egg was enough to keep any reasonable girl happy through a long married life.’

Can he imitate a hen?” said Aurelia’s friend.

“No. It was nothing but an idle rumour. I asked him and he stoutly denied he had ever done such a thing in his life. He was quite stuffy about it. The man is beyond question a flat tyre and a wet smack.”

Archibald Mulliner was stunned. Like every man who is abruptly called upon to revise his entire scheme of values, he felt as if he had been standing on top of the Eiffel Tower and some practical joker had suddenly drawn it away from under him. Tottering back to his bedroom, he sat down on the bed to grapple with this amazing development.

He was roused from his thoughts by light footsteps on the balcony outside. It was Aurelia, who had come to play a prank on him by leaving a loudly snoring dog at his window.

Then inspiration descended on Archibald. He knew what to do, and he did it.

Yes, gentlemen, in that supreme crisis of his life, with his whole fate hanging in the balance, Archibald Mulliner, showing for the first time in his life a well-nigh human intelligence, began to give his celebrated imitation of a hen laying an egg.

The rendition started quietly, with a sort of soft, liquid crooning – the joyful yet half-incredulous murmur of a mother who can scarcely believe that her union has really been blessed, and that it is indeed she who is responsible for that oval mixture of chalk and albumen which she sees beside her in the straw.

Then, gradually, conviction comes. “It looks like an egg”, one seems to hear her say. “It feels like an egg. It’s shaped like an egg. Damn, it is an egg!”

And at that, the crooning takes on a firmer note; soars into a maternal paean of joy – a ‘Charawk-chawk-chawk-chawk’ of such a calibre that few have been able to listen to it dry-eyed. Following which, it was Archibald’s custom to run around the room, flapping the sides of his coat, and then, leaping on to a sofa, to stand there with his arms at right angles, crowing himself purple in the face.

All these things he had done many a time for the idle entertainment of fellow-members of the Drones, but never with the gusto, the brio, with which he performed them now. Every artist knows when the divine fire is within him, and an inner voice told Archibald Mulliner that he was at the top of his form and giving the performance of a lifetime. Love thrilled through every “Brt-t’t-t’t” he uttered, animated each flap of his arms. Indeed, so deeply did Love drive in its spur that, instead of the customary once, he actually made the circle of the room three times before coming to rest on top of the chest of drawers.

When at length he did, he glanced towards the window and saw the loveliest face in the world peering through the curtains. And in Aurelia Cammarleigh’s glorious eyes there was a look he had never seen before. A look of worship.

There was a long silence. Then she spoke.

“Do it again!” she said.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Clowns

Question everyone’s asking on the blog-o-twitter-o-facebook-sphere; how far through Big Top did you manage to get?

Me, about two minutes. The cast were standing in a semi-circle shouting lines into the middle-distance. Not sure it had even been rehearsed. I’m sure I’ve said somewhere that the test of any sitcom is the first joke; if the first joke, the one specifically designed to grab you, doesn’t grab you, then nothing will. I spent about two minutes waiting for the first joke, then realised it had been and gone. Oh well, it’s a pity. I wish there were more sitcoms on television so each one that didn’t work didn’t feel like the boulder rolling back over Sisyphus. Particularly mainstream, family, studio audience shows. And it’s a shame that Bruce MacKinnon seems to have become a sitcom Jonah; he’s a great, funny actor, but only seems to get offered parts in projects doomed to failure.

Way back in 2007, which seems an awfully long time ago but, now I come to think of it, wasn’t, I was invited along to a BBC meeting about coming up with the next Allo Allo. The meeting was chaired by Jon Plowman, think it was his idea, and at the time I was developing a sitcom with the BBC which was a good idea for a show but where I wasn’t the right person to write it. Anyway, off I trotted to the BBC for the meeting. Trying to remember who else was there. NF. Susan Nickson. Paul Mayhew-Archer. Micheal Jacob. And various other comedy writers. I was particularly delighted to meet Andrew Marshall, one of my heroes – he did 2point4 Children, Whoops Apocalypse and the Alexei Sayle shows. Total comedy genius.

The gist of the meeting was basically that the BBC were looking for the next Allo Allo, and for writers to think big laughs, bright colours, recognisable situations, and larger-than-life characters and to get away from the whole embarrassment thing of The Office. Then there was a discussion, which lasted about an hour, with us writers being naturally cautious about sharing ideas because, well, no-one had signed any contracts and who wants to come up with a brilliant suggestion that ends up being written by someone else?

I had an idea, so after the meeting I wrote it up and sent it in. Jon Plowman wasn’t keen, and I can’t afford to write scripts that people aren’t going to pay me for, so that was that. I assumed that Andrew Marshall had sent something in so nobody else would stand a chance. My show was basically Hi-De-Hi but set in a zoo. Think Fierce Creatures – the series. Yes, it had hit written all the way through it. Or a word that sounds like hit.

So reading the 'mixed' reviews of Big Top, I can’t help feeling sorry for the poor writer, thinking ‘that could have been me’. But then, if they’d decided to commission my show it would’ve been marvellous and would've got glowing reviews, so there!