The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Facts Of Life


Over the last few years I’ve written a few Fact of Fiction articles for Doctor Who Magazine. They’ve all been little labours of love, hard work but sheer pleasure, so it’s a source of a little dismay to read in certain dark places of the internet that some readers don’t like them, that they think they are merely retreads of information presented in the earlier Archive series.
 
Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I’d say the Fact of Fiction articles were far from being retreads. Of course there is inevitably going to be some overlap, but the crucial difference is that the Archives were about the production of a particular TV story, while the Fact of Fiction articles concentrate purely on the story itself, its creation, its themes, its strengths and its flaws, its references to other works and its inconsistencies. In short, they’re about the script, and while the Archives did cover the creation of the scripts, they usually only afforded them half a page’s worth of text at most. The Fact of Fiction articles mean the story can be explored and critically analysed in greater depth, in a manner rather like the Arden Shakespeare series (but much more worthwhile and highbrow). But they don’t cover the ins-and-outs of production, whether an actress lost a shoe during filming at Frensham Ponds, whether a studio day had to be remounted because of industrial action, whether they used mirrorlon or jabolite. For that you would need to dig out the Archives.
Of course, when researching a Fact of Fiction, one of the first ports of call is the original Archive feature, along with trying to track down as many different versions of the script as possible and any other relevant paperwork. And whilst I may, reluctantly, repeat some information from the Archive in the interests of completeness, I treat the Archive as a starting point only, a baseline, with the challenge being to find out new information, new facts that haven’t been revealed before. Whether that’s by examining the differences between different drafts, or interviewing the writer, or checking a story against its sources and the history books, comparing it to the novelisation, and so on, and so on.  The mission is to seek out stuff that even Andrew Pixley doesn’t know.

But, yes, as some of this information may have been covered in brief in an Archive there is a small amount of reiteration, though as many of the Archive features were published over twenty years ago, I think that’s forgivable. And the fact that some of them are so old tends to mean that lots of new information has come to light in the meantime; without wishing to impugn Andrew Pixley’s exactitude, it’s sometimes a surprise how much the original Archive gets wrong, just because he was by necessity making inferences based on limited material (maybe just a camera script and a shooting schedule) within a limited wordcount. Since then both Andrew and others have uncovered far more information, a rich seam exploited by the Production Notes on the DVDs (which are also very good for detailing the fates of mislaid shoes in Frensham Ponds) and the Fact of Fiction articles. There is still a lot to be found out and to be said about these old stories.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Wild Thing

By popular demand, some more Blake's 7 reviews from way back in 2002, originally written as emails sent out to a few friends. Health warning - this contains opinions expressed purely for comic effect which in no way represent my views then or now. 


ANIMALS

I've started noticing the cross-fades in the opening titles. Rather like the awkward jumps in the Tom Baker Doctor Who closing titles, once you know they're there, you can't help noticing them each and every time. Once you've been told about the edits, the titles are ruined for you.

What do you mean, you'd never noticed the awkward jumps in the Tom Baker closing titles? What about the cross-fades in the Davison ones? Oh. Whoops. Just ruined them for you. I'll stop now. Oh, and there's an obvious tape edit half-way through Strawberry Fields Forever. Oops.

Animals is a story of two halves. It begins with some lovely model shots of the Scorpio. I like these – particularly the ones where the Scorpio is surrounded by a hazy yellow circle. How did they do that?

The first half concerns Avon, Tarrant, Vila and Orac. Whilst off on a mission, Tarrant got the Scorpio half blown up – well, actually it was all Slave's fault. He's got this competition going with Orac, you see, as to who can place the crew in the most situations of extreme peril. `I humbly suggest, master, that you lay in some co-ordinates to get us away from the plasma shot'. Why not just lay them in yourself, you supercilious electronic grapefruit-squeezer, you.

Oh hello, it's that old approaching plasma shot footage again. I was starting to miss that.

So anyway, Avon, Tarrant and Vila are back on Zennon, the Planet Of Stilted Banter, and they're running through a typical, `Doh, Vil-a!' routine. Not very interesting at all.

Meanwhile, Dayna is on the planet Where The Wild Things Are. It turns out that, in a cross-fertlisation of the two most routine and mundane Blake's 7 plots, not only is there a scientist who used to work for the Federation but who's now continuing with his research on a base on an isolated planet [because, as I mentioned in one of my earlier reviews, the Federation is having great trouble in staff retention – I suggest they adopt a casual-clothes Fridays scheme] but he also happens to be Dayna's former lover.

It's a small universe.

Her former lover is a scientist whose eyes are slightly too far apart called Justin. Another great space name, Justin. He's got a slight look of a Thunderbird puppet about him.

Justin has been working on developing shock troops for the Federation. And they are shock troops in more ways than one… they're, well, giant grizzled old hairy men with horns. They are utterly ludicrous. Obviously this is something he has deliberately genetically-engineered; this is so that should the enemy be faced by one of these creatures, they will feel not only shock, but confusion and laughter. The three key ways to disarm your enemy – shock, confusion and laughter. Surprise them, bewilder them, and reduce them to hysterics – works every time.

Justin is trying to make the creatures more bucolic. And, by a staggering coincidence, they're on the planet Bucol. Obviously somebody has been at the Terry Nation academy of planet-naming.

Servalan – who is, as you will remember, pretending to be Commissioner Sleer – summons Kevin Stoney to tell her about the planet Bucol. Kevin Stoney, eh? It's a shame he wasn't in Doctor Who during the 70s*, he could have played Valentine Dyall or something. Anyway, he recognises her, because she's bloody Servalan. She's the most famous person in the Federation pretending not to be the most famous person in the Federation. Silly plot.

Tch, Chris Boucher, eh? [WIGGLES FINGERS UPWARDS] Chris Boucher [WIGGLES FINGERS DOWNWARD] Brian Croucher, you've got to have a system, haven't you, you've got to have a system.

I've noticed over recent episodes how Servalan has been becoming more Thatcher-esque. Maybe Jacqueline Pearce modelled her later performances on the Iron Lady. Or, as seems more likely, Thatcher modelled herself on Servalan. They both hang around with people in bad wigs, anyway.

Following Stoney's revelations, Servalan orders her minion to get her information about a genetic engineer called Justin. Yes, in all the big Federation, there is only one genetic engineer called Justin. Obviously in the future it is considered an uncommon and bizarre name, like, say, Moonunit is now.

The leader of the Wild Things is called Og. At least, he's called Og on videotape. On film he's called Arg. Arg? What sort of a name is Arg? I know, there's a St Arg's in Cornwall, isn't there?

I'm slightly worried about the adrenaline and soma. Are they actually supposed to be drinking real adrenaline and soma, or is it a brand name, like, say, Red Bull or Two Dogs? I mean, adrenaline – urrgh! Who would want to drink a chemical hormone that's been secreted by someone's kidneys? Ptttooo-wee!

There is a bit of that old videotape/film dichotomy that we saw way back in no, not The Way Back, but in Cygnus Alpha. So we see Justin in the studio standing on an unrealistic grassy knoll, but then we see his POV which is on film. It's very bad telly grammar. It's a good job Doctor Who never did Logopolis that.

Oh no, Dayna has been brainwashed. However, unlike Blake in the old opening titles, she doesn't open her mouth and rock her head from side to side. No, she just sits there in an extraordinarily strung- out scene with Servalan; `You will hate him', `No, I won't', `You will hate him', `No, I won't' – as they go on, they start to slow down and put emphasis on different words for variety, `You will hate… him', `No, I… won't', `You will… hate him', `No… I won't' and so on…

Servalan breaks into Justin's lab. `Your girlfriend let us in'. Eh? No she didn't - he just left the bloody door open! [Note: Justin is later killed by the Absurd Blue Is-That-Supposed-To-Be-A-Spider? Video Effect Of Death.]

At the climax, Avon bursts into the lab to the rescue. Just in case there happen to be any threatening Federation troops in the lab, he smashes in through the door, kicks over a chair for no readily apparent reason, and then skids on the floor and almost falls slap bang on his arse.

Like I said before, shock, confusion and laughter. Works every time.


HEADHUNTER

I'm sure I did watch Season 4 of Blake's 7, at least once, when it was first broadcast. I must have done. But so far the only stories I have seen which I remembered were Rescue and Space Rats. I'm sure I remember Blake and Warlord. And there's one on a Leisure Hive-type planet where people are playing space chess. And the one with Soolin shooting her reflection. But that's about it.

I must've missed Headhunter, because I'm sure I would've remembered it. It's yet another superb episode. With the exception of Power – and possibly the end of Rescue too - this series is shaping up to be pretty damn good. I don't mean the acting, or the sets, I mean the plots. The stories in season 3 tended to have huge illogical holes in them, but with season 4 they're actually quite logical and bankable. Well, so far at least. Who knows how things will pan out.

Headhunter's plot is very clever. I didn't guess the twist, even though Mullah was wearing silver Cyberman gloves. The central idea is totally gross, but in a good way - if Robert Holmes had written it no doubt Mullah would have gone on a strangulation spree as part of a theatrical double-act. It's deviously plotted, with clever false trails and twists. Okay, so it's a bit convenient Tarrant picking up the box with the head in it, but that's the only weakness in it. Overall, it's impeccable.

The only problem is that the execution isn't quite as spooky as the actual idea. Often, it does work - there are some lovely shadow-filled sets and moments of spookiness - but unfortunately there are a few bits where the eponymous villain is not quite as ghoulish or horrific as it should be, and it instead becomes a bit comical [witness it flailing between the trolleys]. Which is a shame, because three quarters of the time they were doing so, so well. It really does have a sort of Westworld vibe.

The other only problem is that, whilst Slave is quite good at being evil, Orac isn't. He's a lippy, smug, unhelpful know-all pain in the arse at the best of times, so having him turning into an evil, lippy, smug, unhelpful know-all pain in the arse is not a hugely shocking transformation.

There are lots of lovely shots of the Scorpio. Possibly too many - it's starting to turn into a blatant padding technique like on Red Dwarf. But each one of these shots does rude things over the sub-Ivor The Engine Liberator animations from a great height.

Soolin's uniform is becoming sparkly. Soolin is great, she's my favourite person in it, I think between her and Jenna it would be a very hard toss-up.

Mullah and his squeeze, Vena [played like Lynda The Trial Of A Time Lord Bellingham] obviously first met romantically at a meeting of Shoulderpad Addicts Anonymous. They are huge. You could balance buckets on them, and I'm not talking small buckets either. Lynda has to turn sideways to get through doorways. It's like Howard's Way In Space. Even Leee Enlightenment John would think twice about wearing them. He'd still wear them, of course, but he'd think twice first.

Also at the SAA meeting was the designer of the Scorpio's space suits. He had to leave early, because he had an appointment with the Ridged Helmet Wearers. Bloody hell. Were they cast-offs from The Tomorrow sodding People or something?

I note that when Mullah destroys guns they are aged to crumbly glowing death, just like Picasso from Rescue. I note also that he suddenly becomes much chattier after Dayna blows his head off. Gosh, I seem to be doing a lot of feeble double entendres this time, don't I?

The Scorpio set is truly poor, isn't it. It's just impossible to find any dramatic angles on it, no matter where the cameras are it still looks like a branch of Iceland. With stalactites. And an over-sized grapefruit squeezer in the corner.

A computer countdown isn't particularly useful when it takes more than a second for the numbers to appear on the screen. You'd never know at what point it had changed from 2 to 1, would you?

My favourite moment is the scene where Avon is worried that Tarrant and Vila may be suffocating. The Darrow is on great form this episode - he's avoiding the Richard III-isms, he's almost as good as he is in Sarcophagus and Rumours Of Death - but he does push the anguished silence a little too far. We get a close up of the Darrow, his eyebrows raising slightly, and then, after a long, long pause, he bellows, 'Rescue suits!'. A top moment. The only drawback being that whenever Darrow is expressing inner turmoil it looks as though he's dealing with trapped wind.

But I really enjoyed it; not quite as much as Space Rats, but almost. I think this season is shaping up very well indeed, and could be the very best Blake's 7 season of all.
 

ASSASSIN

I watched this about a week ago but never got round to writing up my thoughts. So here goes, I might as well get it out of the way.

The title; I'm sorry REDACTED, I take back everything I said, you're completely right. Not all assassins are Deadly. Some of them are fcking useless assassins. By not specifying the competence level of the eponymous killer, it creates a certain level of suspense.

Anyway, this is a terrible story. Absolutely truly awful. So many things wrong with it. An embarrassment of embarrassments. A central plot twist that is bleeding obvious, even if it hadn't been given away by the cover of the video [which lists this story as Animals, typo lovers]. Atrocious. Dreadful. Not even so bad it's good. So bad it's bad.

The Scorpio crew have to go the planet Androzani because some mysterious figure is planning on hiring an assassin to kill them. The meeting is on the 9th, apparently. I thought we had transferred to some sort of Space Calendar, but, no, it's the 9th.

Who is this mysterious figure? Well, the plan makes absolutely no sense, it's overcomplicated and riddled with illogical leaps and red herrings, so it's got to be bloody Servalan, hasn't it? It's like the Master in Doctor Who; why does he dress up as a Logopolitan, why does he disguise himself as Kalid, why does he become an unconvincing 'yoo ayv insulted zee keen!' Belgian intent on preventing the signature of Magna Carta? Because, well, because he's a criminal and criminals do things like that. The exact sort of lazy character motivation that Douglas Adams/Bob Baker parodied in Nightmare Of Eden.

Slave doesn't talk much in this episode. Soolin does, though, and she raises her eyebrows whilst talking as though she doesn't understand or care about what the lines mean but is trying to invest them with some random expression and meaning by alternating between happy and sad. The Tiffany Chapman method.

Cancer - Scorpio. D'y'see what we did there?

Although we are in a quarry, the cameraman delights in showing us the surrounding woodland, houses, pylons, car parks, Happy Eater, signpost to Gerards Cross etc. So maybe we're actually supposed to think they are in a quarry, and that the planet isn't a desert wasteland. Or maybe it's just incompetence. Hmm. I'll go out on a limb here - it's going to be incompetence, isn't it?

But I know just what the cameraman was thinking. He was thinking, 'well, it doesn't matter if I accidentally show a bit of woodland, because everyone is going to be distracted by the extras'. They won't see the trees for the wood. But the alien agents are astonishing, aren't they? A row of comedy magii. Only one of whom is allowed to speak, of course, budgets being what they are. We pan across them to see Servalan who, for the first time in the show's history, is not the most absurdly garbed person on display.

Garb. That's a very Doctor Who word, isn't it. Edwardian cricketer's garb. No-one ever says 'garb' in real life, do they? I mean, if they did, you'd have to slap them, wouldn't you? 'Don't. Use. Words. Like. Garb.' You'd have to be cruel to be kind.

In the background there's a bit of cod-eastern noodling on the moog. It doesn't create an atmosphere of the exotic. Instead, it sounds like Rick Wakeman in a Fez.

Sitting beside Servalan is an old woman in a mad hat. Her comedy drops-glass double-take at the Scorpio teleporting is truly dreadful. Hasn't she seen people teleporting before? Rub-bish. She's probably REDACTED now, though.

The BBC have obviously just bought the video mixer a new box of tricks. 'Now you can do scene changes as swipes, or cross-mixes, or as circles growing out of the middle of the screen'. Yes, great. But not every single bloody scene change. It's very distracting. Used sparingly, wonderful, very Star Wars. The problem is though, each time one of these effects is used, the viewer thinks, 'Ahh, that indicates the passage of time' which means they end up with the impression the story lasts about four months.

Darrow is locked up with Neebrox played by William Hartnell. He's very good. Neebrox is the slave who sees all. He's been locked up in a cell for the last week but can also manage to give detailed and lengthy descriptions of everyone who has arrived and left the planet in the last week. I must say, William Hartnell does look a bit off; if I didn't know better, I would swear he was being played by Edmund Warwick. The resemblance, though, is uncanny. I'm not entirely who the resemblance is of, but it's uncanny all the same.

The only bits where I got a sense of deja vu was the fight in the sandpit and one of the guards saying how, if Avon's bracelet was as worthless as he claimed, he wouldn't mind it being taken off him. This may mean I saw and remembered these scenes as a kid; then again, they may just have happened many times before in Blake's 7, which seems rather more likely.

Anyway, so the Scorpio crew decide to beam onboard the Disaster Area stuntship with a crab on the side and kill Cancer. Cancer is, we are supposed to believe, a bloke with a beard who has been body building. Except it's blindingly obvious that the assassin is the whimpering old tart called Perry he's got with him.

Oh god she is annoying. She sniffs, she mumbles, she gibbers, she moans. She's a complete and utter REDACTED. She's as wet as an incontinent's worst nightmare.

And Tarrant is supposed to be taken in by her. There are these occasionally lines about how she is so young, innocent and gorgeous looking that no man can resist her. But she isn't. She looks about forty and she is, well, not blessed with good looks, unless you really go for the REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED.

She really needs a slap. Fortunately, the gorgeous Soolin gives her one off the wrist, which calms her down for a bit. At least, that's what I thought until I realised she was just saving herself for her death scene... I'm sorry, Ingrid, but that is the most laughable death scene in the history of British science fiction, and you'll never be able to top it.

But Soolin is not, it has to be said, always wonderful in this episode. At one point she says something like 'We can't cart shmarmy warmy bimble shmarmy survival to nil.' I still haven't worked out whatever it was she was trying to say, the poor girl. She's a gabbler. She looks away as she's saying it, it's an obvious fluff. But there are no second takes on Blake's 7, otherwise the Darrow would not be the Darrow.

Still, the spiders are cool.

Oh, and Tarrant grabs Cancer's man-boob in self-defence. Cheeky.

* Yes, he was in Revenge of the Cybermen, I know.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Love Comes To Everyone


The latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, the one with a psychedelic portrait of Jon Pertwee on the cover, includes an article by yours truly on The Greatest Doctor Who Love Stories. A little bit of fun for Valentine’s Day, essentially, going through the various pairings, selecting their Magic Moment, discussing what the love story was, and allocating a Love Theme. I originally wanted to give them all numbers and put Astrid Peth at number one but Tom persuaded me not to. I’m rather pleased with it – it was quite an undertaking to research – and it seems to have gone down well with readers on the internet forums* so that’s all good. Please buy the magazine and check it out.

This isn’t an attempt to justify the article, but what I found interesting about researching it – and researching the Dalek article I did a few months ago – is that it forces you to look at a story from a different perspective. In this case, by removing all the science-fiction action-adventure stuff and concentrating on what might be a subplot or even just a minor thread. And all sorts of things leap out – how well-told Jo and Cliff Jones love story is, how Stott and Della’s love story has a crucial scene missing, how Altos and Sabetha’s love story pops out of nowhere and so forth; things you wouldn’t normally notice watching the episodes, because there’s so much else going on.

It can also, I think, be a useful thing to do when writing stories. Some wise writer person once said that every character in a story thinks they are the hero of the story and when writing it’s crucial to bear that in mind. That the villain or antagonist thinks that he is the hero of the story (and that the hero is the antagonist). That every guard, every servant, every non-speaking bystander, thinks the story is about them. And so, when writing, you should try to think of it from every character’s perspective; how is their character developing, how are they being pro-active.

If there’s time, it can be useful to go through a script character by character, just reading their scenes and imagining them from that character’s point of view and ignoring every scene they’re not in. What does that character want, what does that character need but not know they need, how are they consciously and subconsciously trying to achieve these goals, how are their flaws preventing them, where are they emotionally at any given point, and is everything they say and do absolutely logical and rational based on the information they have been given.

The proviso being, if there’s time, which there often isn’t, so it’s something important to bear in mind when writing anyway. A lot of it is about making the characters feel reel, making them come to life off the page, so that when their name appears the reader goes ‘Oh, yes, Bob, I remember Bob, I’m glad he’s back in it again, I was wondering what he’d got up to’. Rather than ‘Who the hell is Bob?”

The other reason why it’s worth checking that every character is the hero of their own story (I feel pretty sure this might be a Joss Whedon quote, or maybe it was Richard Curtis talking about Four Weddings. Or both) is that every one of these parts is going to have an actor trying to bring them to life, trying to find all that emotion and subtext and motivational stuff, and who wants to suffer the excruciating embarrassment of having written an actor a crap part? The actor should feel they have something to do, something to get their teeth into, a little journey to go on. Even if they’re only in one scene, or they are just a spear-carrier, there should be some spark.

And that’s what’s interesting about these love stories, because they are all about characters being given that extra motivation, that extra bit of emotion, that extra story beat. So, for instance, two computer programmers from Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways who could have been the most nondescript exposition-machines instead have their own romance, they own doomed love affair, and become characters we care about and pay attention to.  So that’s why researching this article was fun, because it taught me (well, reminded me) about the importance of making every character count.

* MIRANDA GIVES RAISED-EYEBROW LOOK TO CAMERA.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Brilliant Adventure


Today, I am told, copies of Vienna – The Memory Box have been sluddering through people’s mailboxes and materializing with a virtual twinkle in their Big Finish account folders. This is exciting and marvellous, for several reasons.

Firstly, the story has the fabulous Chase Masterson as its lead, portraying the intergalactic assassin Vienna Salvatori. The character appeared previously in the Doctor Who story The Shadow Heart, but don’t worry. You don’t have to have bought that story to get anything. This story stands stands alone in its own self-contained universe; it features no Time Lords, Daleks or Cybermen. Chase is glorious in the part, a part that could’ve been written for her (and which is, as far as The Memory Box is concerned)

Secondly, it also features as its guest cast the mind-bogglingly versatile and reliable John Banks, top comedienne and Games Of Thrones star Gemma Whelan, and top comedian and Torchwood’s PC Andy, Tom Price. Without wishing to choose favourites, it was particularly lovely to meet Tom as I’d written for him before, many centuries ago on a cruelly underrated and undeservedly forgotten Channel 5 sketch show called Swinging, but had never actually met him. For years, in meetings about various sitcoms I’d written I’d put his name forward as my choice as lead, but alas to no avail. But who knows what the future holds, I haven’t given up yet.

Thirdly, it was directed by Ken Bentley, top director. Bearing in mind the main quality a director has to have, in my opinion, is the ability to put up with a writer sitting behind him occasionally giving notes. That is Ken’s great talent. Where other directors have sighed, despaired or taken out court orders, he has remained a bastion of tolerance.

Fourthly, the sound design and music is by Jamie Robertson, who has done many great things for Big Finish, such as the Jago & Litefoot theme and the noises for such celebrated releases as The First Sontarans and Peri And The Piscon Paradox. But unless I’m massively mistaken, he’s never worked on one of my things before, so this is a rare conjunction of talents.

And that’s it. Oh, fifthly, and very much lastly, it was written by me, and I’m terribly proud of it. More than that, though, I’m terribly grateful to Big Finish, and particularly David Richardson, for giving me this opportunity, to set-up my own little science fiction adventure series, and I couldn’t be more delighted that the end result sounds like the soundtrack to the most awesome, big-budget, thrill-packed rollercoaster of an action movie ever. I have been done proud.

What's the story actually about? There’s another blog here about that.

What I should mention, as it’s been mentioned in the ‘out now’ announcement for The Memory Box, is that there is a Vienna series in the offing, a three-story box set. At least two of which, should you need any persuading to pre-order, will not be written by me. Which is another great delight of originating a series; having the chance to recommend people for work. I hope to have the opportunity to do that a great deal more.

So please, please, pop over to Big Finish and order the CD or the download, at the time of writing it’s only £5, which barely buys you a pint of lager these days. Go on, I promise you won’t regret it.