The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Booklovers

A friend a mine spotted the above recommendation in the Manchester branch of Waterstones. Woohoo!

So far, reaction to the Touched By An Angel book has been extremely positive. My reaction to the reaction is about 10% delight and 90% relief.

Apparently my latest Doctor Who audio, the Companion Chronicle, Tales From The Vault, is now being sent out to subscribers. Exciting.

Thing I should have mentioned a while ago. At the Big Finish Day I was interviewed by The Doctor Who Podcast, which can be found here. You have to click the MP3 Download thing on the right and then open the file. I start nattering about 39 minutes in.

And secondly, over on the actual Big Finish site there's a podcast with behind-the-scenes stuff from a Doctor Who audio I wrote back in my dim and distant youth called Max Warp. When you get to the website there's a little control panel under 'RSS Feeds' where you press play. They start nattering about it 6 minutes in.

And finally, can somebody please tell me why blogger keeps on adding '' to my posts? Answers via twitter please.

Monday, 11 July 2011

A Piece Of Sky

So let me get this straight. In a few months, it may turn out to be the case that News Corp is found to not be ‘fit and proper’ to own BSkyB, and thus may end up having its takeover bid rejected.

Which, I daresay, will be presented as some sort of victory for morality and justice.

But, even if their takeover bid is rejected, News Corp will still own 39% of BSkyB. Which may sound like a minority stake but is, in fact, a controlling share. This means that News Corp effectively owns and runs BSkyB now (as is obvious, their Chairmen are father and son), thus influencing the editorial stance of its news output, directing policy, taking a chunk of the profits, etc. To quote The Economist; ‘If there is a problem with Mr Murdoch controlling Sky, the problem already exists: an outright purchase does not create it.’

Which, to me, seems odd. Surely if News Corp is found to be not ‘fit and proper’ to purchase BSkyB outright, then News Corp is not ‘fit and proper’ to have a controlling share in it either. Either News Corp is ‘fit and proper’ to run a UK TV station or it isn’t.

What this illustrates is a discrepancy in the 1990 Broadcasting Act, that the ‘fit and proper’ test only applies to a company wishing to have a broadcasting license (which News Corp would effectively be if it owned 100% of BSkyB) but not to companies which might have a controlling share in a company with a broadcasting license.

So when – if – News Corp fails to gain overall control of BSkyB due to being found to not be ‘fit and proper’, politicians will present it as a moral victory, and when it is pointed out to them that News Corp is still, to all intents and purposes, the owner of BSkyB, I expect they will probably just wring their hands and say there is nothing that can be done about it.

When, of course, there is something they can do about it. They can change the terms of the 1990 Broadcasting Act to apply the ‘fit and proper’ test to companies with controlling shares.

It will be interesting to see if the political will is there. Lots of politicians of all parties seem to be delighting in their newly-acquired testicles, but will they have the courage to take the public’s disgust with the behaviour of News Corp to its logical and ethical conclusion?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Do You Remember The First Time?

Couple of brief ‘heads-up’ type things.

There’s an interview with yours truly in the latest issue of Vortex, the Big Finish freebie magazine, available both virtually online and physically with purchase of recent things. I’m asked questions about this month’s Doctor Who: Companion Chronicles audio, Tales From The Vault, and I do my best to answer them with both wit and insight.

It’s odd, being interviewed. I mean, I’ve barely been interviewed a dozen times, and already there are moments when I feel like Terrance Dicks or Douglas Adams, not in a literary achievement sense, but in a I-can’t-remember-any-of-the-details-but-I-can-remember-the-answer-I-gave-last-time sense. I can barely remember the writing of Tales From The Vault, which was last year sometime, and when I get asked about Bloodtide or Flip-Flop it’s like I’m answering questions on behalf of someone else and guessing at their intent. At least with the recent stuff I still have the email paper trails and files of early drafts and synopses.

I remember reading or hearing an interview with Terry Pratchett where he said that, when he delivered the final draft of each of his books to his publisher, he’d then go back and delete all the earlier drafts from his computer. ‘Bugger posterity’. I’m far too much of a compulsive hoarder to do that but I think the process he describes is analogous to what goes on mentally; when you’ve finished a job, you use the same bit of headspace for the next job and end up recording over it. And like all memories, if you don’t revisit them, they fade, and ifyou do revisit them, you fictionalise them.

I should also plug the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine. It’s a special issue in tribute to Brigadier Nicholas Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart Courtney, affectionately known as the Brig, and includes a wonderful article about him by Nick Pegg, plus some perspicacious reviews by Gary Gillatt and Graham Kibble-Wight. So my contribution to the issue, part two of the comic strip story Apotheosis, is rather overshadowed. Which is a shame, it features some glorious artwork by Dan McDaid and is the first issue where all the bits of this incredibly convoluted ‘arc’ I’ve built up start coming together for the next, epic, four-part season finale (and the last story of my ‘run’). I invite readers to go back and check out the earlier stories. The clues were there.

As it is a Nicholas Courtney tribute issue, some people have asked why there wasn’t a Brig tribute comic strip, with the eleventh Doctor meeting the Brigadier. Well, it’s a lovely idea, but these things are all planned out and locked down months and months in advance, and I think the earlier story The Warkeeper’s Crown has already had pretty much the definitive last word, with the tenth Doctor saying goodbye to the Brigadier, and I don’t think any other story could follow that. Maybe another writer will come up with something, but I’m wary of going down that path for fear of being maudlin; there are so many people deserving of tributes I wouldn’t want to have to decide where to draw the line.

Saturday, 9 July 2011


Re-mastered and bonus-laden editions of the first two Erasure albums were released last week. In my capacity as someone who used to work for them, back in the 1990’s, and who has remained a fan, I thought I’d review them.

Wonderland is a fun little album, but not one I revisit often. Vince’s synth arrangements are still pretty sparse, like his stuff wtih Yazoo and his production work for Robert Marlow, and the songs are mostly in the Yazoo formula; Who Needs Love Like That is basically a rewrite of Don’t Go (blasphemy, I know, but it’s true) while My Heart... So Blue sounds more Yazoo than Yazoo (this track also being the one where Andy most closely mimics Alison Moyet’s vocal style). My favourite track is probably Say What, which I think might have been earmarked as a fourth single at one point.

The re-mastering does seem to give the album a lot more whack and thud. I’m not entirely sure about the selection of bonus tracks – my pedantic nature would prefer the inclusion of the ‘proper’ mix of Don’t Say No rather than a remix, and it’s a bit of a missed opportunity not to include oddities like the US album mix of Oh L’Amour, the German-language version, or stuff like Sugar Hill (which I am certain was an out-take from this album) or Andy’s audition versions of One Day and Who Needs Love Like That. Plus there are some early TV appearances where Vince & Andy try out a dance routine dressed as cowboys which are hilarious. On the other hand, it’s fantastic that the Stockholm concert is finally seeing the light of day. I’m pretty sure it was the first, or one of the first, times they’d ever performed Sometimes live (possibly before they had even recorded the studio version).

Listening to it, I also noticed for the first time that the version of Push Me Shove Me on the album is the Tacos Mix with the last 35 seconds cut off. I’m not sure whether the abrupt ending was deliberate or not. Let’s presume it was deliberate.

The Circus is a much stronger album, with four singles – Sometimes, the brilliant Victim Of Love, the sadly under-rated It Doesn’t Have To Be with its Paul Simon Graceland middle-eight, and The Circus, a bleak, pseudo-political song with a strange melody and, unusually for Erasure, a melodic bass-line. There’s also Hideaway, about which I been sworn to secrecy, and If I Could and Leave Me To Bleed, both fantastic songs using the same lyric formula as Sometimes (i.e. verses based around denials, ‘It’s not the way you...’, ‘I don’t believe... ‘, ‘It wasn’t me that saw you...’) and Don’t Dance which I still contend is one of the weakest songs they ever wrote. But overall, the songwriting on this album is incredibly strong and disciplined, Andy’s found his own voice and the arrangements are much more intricate (i.e. the counterpoint tootle at the end of Victim Of Love.)

Again the pedant in me would have preferred the original version of The Soldier’s Return to be included on the album rather than a remix and I can’t believe the fantastic Decay Mix of The Circus has been overlooked. On the other hand, there are radio sessions that I never knew existed, which is terribly exciting, and you get the Live At The Seaside concert on DVD, which is, of course, terrific. The only thing which would’ve been nice to have included (but which was probably impractical) would be the kids TV appearance where Vince & Andy are dressed as Pontin’s Bluecoats riding a buggy around a theme park performing Sometimes with different lyrics.

Anyway, I recommend both albums highly; now, please, I want re-mastered editions of Wild! and Chorus!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Ride 'Em Cowboy

The problem with the Doctor Who story The Gunfighters.

To begin with one very big caveat; almost everyone I know thinks this story is excellent. I am very much in a minority in not rating it highly.

My problem isn’t about the song which is intrusive, repetitive and over-used, or the array of varied and variable accents, or even the incredibly small sets which mean that everyone has to take very short, slow steps in order to avoid accidentally walking off the end.

My problem is that it’s a ‘pure historical’, and it’s probably the best example of why they decided to stop doing ‘pure historical’ Doctor Who stories shortly afterwards. Of course, the main reason was that adventures in the Trojan War, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre or the Gunfight at the OK Corral are never going to be as exciting as a story involving Daleks, Cybermen or Monoids (though it is about equally as exciting as a story involving futuristic Savages, and rather more exciting than the encounter with the Celestial Toymaker.)

The thing is, you see, like The Myth Makers and The Massacre, The Gunfighters is all about one brief, tragic occurrence in history, which takes place in the final episode. This means the story itself is an exposition-heavy preamble setting up the inevitable; The Myth Makers at least has some fun by subverting heroic archetypes and playing with the notion of the Doctor deliberately, but reluctantly, providing the idea of the Trojan horse despite believing it to be a myth. But The Massacre and The Gunfighters are both very similar, structurally; the Doctor and his companions are given sub-plots to make them appear busy, while various historical characters we’re never given any reason to care about meet in hostelries discussing recent events and How Things Are Getting Out of Hand.

That’s the problem. For a drama to work, your lead characters need to be central to the story; they need to be driving it by making meaningful choices, by affecting the course of events. In the pure historical, they are necessarily sidelined; they can have no direct or deliberate influence over the outcome of the story as a whole, only over their own fates and those of minor supporting characters. Which, to be fair, worked very well in The Aztecs, The Reign Of Terror and The Crusade.

But The Massacre and The Gunfighters are less elegant. The Massacre is a very oddly-told story; the Doctor disappears during part one only to reappear without explanation in part four, with William Hartnell playing the Abbot of Amboise in the middle two episodes. But nothing is done with this doppelganger; it’s a gimmick that comes out of nowhere, which goes nowhere, and which doesn’t affect the story. It’s just, like so much of that adventure, political/religious intrigue as padding.

The Gunfighters similarly contrives to get the Doctor involved in the story through another lookalike, with him being mistaken for Doc Holliday, but this complication is resolved in part two, and from that point on, the Doctor, Steven and Dodo are barely involved. Which is a problem, because those are the characters the audience cares about, not a bunch of cowboys. If the Doctor had to take Doc Holliday’s place in the shoot-out, because t real Doc Holliday had been prematurely killed elsewhere, in order to preserve the course of history; that would be a strong starting-point for a story. But that would also be subverting history, not popular with those wishing to justify the story on educational grounds.

It’s interesting, for me at least, that the next two ‘history’ stories attempted a different approach, inspired by the works of Robert Louis Stevenson there’s a fun if generic smuggling tale, and a fun if generic Kidnapped! tale. The Highlanders does include another historical massacre, but uses it as a starting point rather than a finishing line – which works better, because it means the futures of the characters are up for grabs, rather than tragically predestined. I mean, you can tell exciting stories about characters that are tragically predestined (such as The Aztecs), but in The Gunfighters, our three leads don’t show any interest in the fact that most of the characters they meet are fated to die; it’s all just jolly cowboy larks. But for us to take a situation seriously, our heroes need to take it seriously, and to be directly involved.

That’s my main problem with The Gunfighters. It’s an example of why a certain type of ‘historical’ story doesn’t work; one week our heroes are influencing the entire future course of the human race, the next they are powerless to intervene in a grubby wild-west shootout.

But I have other difficulties with it. The Gunfighters plot is reliant on the Doctor, Steven and Dodo behaving uncharacteristically stupidly (well, the Doctor and Steven anyway); the Doctor is portrayed as a doddery old man who is taken in by the most transparent of ruses, who blunders into traps and treats guns like amusing toys.

Of course, there’s plenty of comedy to be mined from this new-found idiocy; Peter Purves does a very good job at playing out of his depth, William Hartnell is surprisingly sharp in the opening episode, and even Dodo is charming in her attempt to hold Doc Holliday at gunpoint. But the problem with the comedy is this; in terms of its script, The Gunfighters wasn’t intended to be a comedy. It seems to be attempting a similar approach to The Myth Makers; portraying ‘heroic’ characters as down-at-heel, unscrupulous opportunists, but playing it completely straight. There might have been humorous intentions, but all the scenes with the cowboys discussing their various tiresome grudges are joke-free; except that at some point during rehearsals, the decision seems to have been made to play it as a comedy, so you have a character with a cod stutter etc. The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon is another attempt to liven up what is a pretty functional, drab script; a script devoid of tension, because most people watching will already know how the story ends, and because the story sidelines the leads so that at no point do we feel they are in danger, or may have some bearing on how the story ends. Unlike The Myth Makers, where the same writer very cleverly puts the Doctor, Steven and Vicki in the thick of the action.

Plus I don’t like Westerns.