The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Scandal



Just finished reading The Life and Scandalous Times of JN-T, a controversial biography of John Nathan-Turner, the late Doctor Who producer who oversaw its various rises and falls during the 1980s. A few thoughts.

On the whole, it’s very good. Particularly in terms of capturing JN-T’s personality, his world and his sense of humour. Ironically it’s of most interest to Doctor Who fans when covering JN-T’s early career, as that’s new information whereas the Doctor Who section of his career has been thoroughly explored in interviews, articles and DVD documentaries, and there are few stories to be found which won’t be familiar to fans. In fact, the coverage of the awfulness of fandom during the mid-80s brought back a lot of bad memories I’d suppressed.

The author seems to have taken ‘even-handedness’ as a mission statement and the book tries to give all points of few, even to a fault. On more than one occasion does the narrative grind to a halt as a dozen or more of JN-T’s acquaintances get to have their say on some point of contention; on the one hand, I applaud the thoroughness and appreciate the author’s desire not to leave anything out, but on the other hand I think some tighter editorial discretion would have helped, to realise that once a point’s been effectively made it’s time to move on. It is a biographer’s job to sift the evidence and to boil it down; at various points in this book it seemed the reader is expected to decide whether or not something was the case based on sheer weight of numbers, as interviewees line up on either side of whether, say, JN-T’s boyfriend was a good or bad influence.

Similarly, there are several occasions where one interviewee will make a contentious statement about JN-T, about his sex life or his attitude to work, which is then followed by three or four better-informed interviewees saying that it wasn’t true for various easily-verifiable reasons. Again, in such instances a biographer should, I think, just have left the story out, as it’s a biographer having his cake and eating it; here’s a juicy bit of gossip which will surprise you, oh but I should add it’s almost certainly not true. So while the book is thorough, and even-handed, it lacks rigour. It gives too much emphasis to interviewees who have repeatedly shown themselves to be unreliable and biased in other areas.

The other point that concerns me, regarding rigour, is that sometimes it seems as if the stories about things that didn’t go very well during JN-T’s times have been selected and presented to show JN-T in a negative light; for instance, during the 80s there was an unfortunate contretemps between the Doctor Who production office and writer Christopher Priest. Priest has given two interviews on this over the years, once in 1990 (about 6 years after the event) and once in 2009 (25 years after the event). In the first interview, he states the problem was created by the script-editor Eric Saward, even going so far as to quote correspondence. In the later interview, he states it was solely JN-T he had the problem with. And yet this biography chooses to only present the latter version of events, selectively quoting to make it look like the dispute was between JN-T and Priest and was solely of JN-T’s making (and then notes that Eric Saward had to apologise for... er... what exactly?). So it seems that in this case, given two conflicting versions of events, the author has chosen to present only the one which showed JN-T in an unfavourable light and not the one which showed him as a victim of circumstances drawn into a dispute by his script-editor; I can’t help but wonder how many of the other stories have been selectively edited in this way.

I would also echo the criticism of the book made by Matthew Sweet in his review, that the writing style is occasionally distractingly, inappropriately glib; sex is 'fucking', apparently producer Philip Hinchcliffe ‘pissed off management’ while the Savile crisis is designated a ‘shit-storm’. It reads occasionally like a post on a Doctor Who forum; biographer Marson is incapable of mentioning any Doctor Who story without giving his verdict on how good or bad he personally regards it, almost like a nervous tic, which doesn’t create an impression of objectivity (even though I agree with most of his assessments). I sighed as I read the Graham Williams era being described as containing ‘undergraduate humour’; alas the book is littered with 80s fanzine clich├ęs I thought we’d dispensed with decades ago. Marson can't resist sharing gossip about any deceased member of the production team, whether warranted or not, as though Peter Moffatt’s domestic arrangements might be of interest to anyone or shed any light on his work directing The Two Doctors. He also can’t resist dropping nod-and-wink hints about the behaviour of those who are still with us. We’re very much back in that DWB mindset with this book, and that’s probably the most depressing thing about it of all.

You see, in the mid-80s DWB was a Doctor Who fanzine that most of us bought because it was the only magazine that actually had up-to-date news, and at the time DWM was a pretty shoddy piece of work, padded out with regurgitated non-features (many written by Marson himself). DWB was a window into Doctor Who fandom of the time, which was, basically, poisonous, with a clique of older, well-off fans publicly savaging the show, its cast and its producer seemingly as a personal vendetta. Well, thanks to this book we do know it was personal. This book brought it all back; those fans’ ludicrously inflated sense of importance and entitlement, the egos (even now, they can’t resist building up their parts from insignificant bystander to crucial eye-witness). When one fan dismisses the show’s producer as merely a ‘caretaker’ that pretty much says it all; these half-dozen or so fans thought they owned the show, they thought they spoke for the rest of us, and they poisoned the whole atmosphere of fandom. It’s one of the reasons why I gave up on it all back in the 90s, it was just all too insular, bitchy and depressing.

And as this biography relates, they were astonishingly, excruciatingly sycophantic towards JN-T when they wanted something from him (i.e. visits to studio recordings) just as they were equally vitriolic when excluded. I’m not sure the story of 80s fandom is as significant in JN-T’s career as this book portrays it, but it is a fascinating subject, because it’s the story of a producer being seduced by fame, sexual opportunism and (American) fans treating him like a movie star, and becoming too close to certain fans as a result. It was a mistake, but given that no-one had found themselves in that situation before, perhaps a forgiveable one.

Yes, he shagged a few fans who were up for it. I suppose I must be pretty broad minded because I didn’t find it remotely shocking. Certainly not as shocking as Marson believes it to be, given that he twists himself in knots at the end of the chapter he has entitled with typical inanity ‘Hanky Panky’ to try to excuse what, to be honest, is behaviour that doesn’t really need excusing. Marson even brings up the notion of JN-T being a paedophile to dismiss it, as though any reader would naturally suspect that of any homosexual man who worked at the BBC. Such are these paranoid Daily Mail days that we live in.

The book takes as its two villains Gary Downie, JN-T’s partner, and Jonathan Powell. The ‘revelations’ about Gary Downie are rather sordid – I remember encountering him at a convention once and finding him pretty creepy – but won’t be news to anyone who read that horrendous car-crash of an interview with him that DWM published a few years ago in a rare lapse of judgement. Painting Powell as a villain, on the other hand, seems unjustified and wrong. Powell’s forthright manner doesn’t do him any favours on the printed page and like anyone in television he’s not short of people willing to slag him off but, well, the guy did know what he was talking about.

A bit of background. For the Trial of a Time Lord season Powell actually, for the first and only time, took an interest in Doctor Who and how to improve it. He read the scripts and gave detailed notes. And if you read the notes he gave, you’ll realise he was bang on the money and for someone who claimed not to like Doctor Who, he could still see how it worked and how to fix it. He spotted every weakness in Robert Holmes/Eric Sawards’ scripts and offered sensible, effective solutions. The fact that it was, by this point, very nearly too late is just the nature of television. If Holmes and Saward had actually implemented his notes then Trial would have been a better show, a much better show. But they didn’t, because it would’ve required too much effort. But how does Marson present this in the biography? The internal post ‘spewed up’ a memo from Powell of ‘closely-typed script assassination’. That’s just wrong, the fanboy knee-jerk response that Robert-Holmes-can-do-no-wrong-vs-a-meddling-executive-who-doesn’t-understand-the-show, and we’re back in DWB land again.

However, where the book is much stronger is on its portrayal of the BBC and its culture at the time; it seems to have been a drinking club that occasionally made programmes. The fact that some of those involved think that good stuff got made because, rather than in spite, of the boozing just shows how accepted it was in those days. It’s one of the untold stories that so many of the UK’s industrial problems in the late 70s were due to the drinking culture in the political and managerial classes; received wisdom has it that the unions caused all the problems but at least their members turned up for work sober in the afternoons.

And it’s telling, and quite sad, that JN-T was one of the last products of this alcohol-fuelled television culture, and that within ten years behaviour which had once been the norm was now a liability. And the other tragedy of JN-T’s career is that he devoted so much of it to understanding how to get the best out of the BBC’s internal production system, just as the BBC were about to dismantle it, so all his knowhow would turn out to be useless. And so JN-T found himself redundant, with nothing to do but drink himself to death, and this book is a (literally) sobering warning about the dangers of alcoholism and how quick and easy it is to kill yourself with booze if you put your mind to it. You’re left with a sense of loss, not so much at JN-T’s death but with the sense that even if even he were still alive, he’d have nothing to do except appear as a talking head in Ed Stradling's documentaries.

The above review might come across as negative, but I nevertheless recommend this book because there is so much in it that is extraordinary. Russell T Davies’ contributions are typically insightful and forthright, as are the interviews with the show's various actors and writers. The research on JN-T’s career before and after Doctor Who is unprecedented, and Marson writes movingly and intelligently about his own personal experience of grief. But, well, I just wish it had been more objective, more rigorous, more tightly-edited, and less of a nudge-nudge wink-wink DWB-filtered journey into Doctor Who Babylon. But maybe that’s what JN-T would’ve wanted.


Oh, and surely I can’t be the only one to guess the identity of the mysterious fan and source of fabricated Doctor Who gossip who drove a wedge between JN-T and Eric Saward? With initials ‘AR’ (who Eric, being dyslexic, would think of as ‘AW’)?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Night Has A Thousand Eyes


Have you bought the Doctor Who Magazine: The Missing Episodes special edition yet? I hope so. It turned out very well after all our hard work, with the teeny-tiny photos presented in hitherto undreamed-of glossiness and clarity.

The magazine includes a long introduction by yours truly about the missing episodes, why they are missing, how much we know about what they were like and how much we don’t (and how world-shatteringly-joyous any future episode recoveries would be). So I won’t bother repeating all that here. Instead, I’m going to talk about a single scene from Marco Polo part four.

Marco Polo part four is, sadly, the only episode of that stories for which telesnaps have yet to be discovered, making it doubling missing, in a way. For the magazine I wrote a little guide to what happened in this most enigmatic of episodes, based upon two things; the existing audio soundtrack, recorded by enterprising and far-sighted fans David Holman and Richard Landen, and the camera script for the episode included in the first Doctor Who: The Lost TV Episodes Box Set.

For much of the episode (properly known as The Wall of Lies), events were clear; the audio followed the camera script unambiguously. Except at one point near the beginning. As I’m sure all Doctor Who devotees know, the episode opens with the Doctor, Ian and Susan searching for Barbara in the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. They are aided in their search by the heroic Marco Polo and the winsome Ping-Cho and hindered by the scheming Tegana. Based on the fact that Susan claims to have seen the eyes in a sinister wall-carving move, Ian starts searching the walls. He finds the edge of a hidden door, and Marco says, ‘All we need now is to find out how to open it.’

And then the door opens to reveal Barbara being held captive by some vile Mongol warriors.


But in writing my guide, this scene worried me. Why did the door open? Did Ian open it? Was it Marco? Was it the Doctor? Was it the Mongols? Or did it mysteriously open of its own accord? The camera script doesn’t help. It just says

(DOOR PIVOTS TO REVEAL INNER CHAMBER)

The description on the audio CD smartly fudges the issue by saying, ‘But as they search, the door swings open’ while the novelisation cuts that section and has Polo opening the room to the secret cave (which he conveniently and suspiciously knows all about) by twisting a stalactite.

So that is the great unsolved mystery of part four of Marco Polo. The mystery of the hidden door. A mystery that can never be solved unless the episode is miraculously discovered. But even then, maybe we will still never know. Maybe it was as unclear on screen as it was in the script.

After all, there’s the Voord that gets stabbed in the back in part one of The Keys Of Marinus. I’ve been through that scene frame by frame (and through the camera script line by line) and I still don’t know how that’s supposed to have happened.

Oh, and how did I write it up in my guide? "[Ian] locates the edge of the door and it swings open."

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long, Long Time)


A couple of my upcoming projects have been announced in different places. The latest issue of the Big Finish magazine Vortex includes a little feature about The Space Race, a story due for release in October this year. It’s the middle instalment of a trilogy of stories set in November 1963, and takes as it inspiration the competition between the USA and the USSR to be the first into space. It’s set at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and I can’t really say any more than that without spoiling any of the surprises. But tonally it’s quite a modern, punchy, hard-science fiction, rather than being an attempt to recreate any previous TV era. So place your orders for that now.


The other thing that’s just been announced is a Tom Baker story for release in May 2014 (if we’re all still here) called Last of the Colophon. It also features Louise Jameson as his companion Leela, Gareth Thomas as Morax, Jessica Martin as Sutton, and Blake Riston as Kellaway, amongst others. Again, it would probably be unwise to go into too much detail now, it’s over a year away (and was written over a year ago!) but, well, it’s intended as a kind of homage to Robert Holmes, an attempt to capture his style. Before writing it, I not only re-absorbed his Doctor Who works, but got a friend to lend me all his Blake’s 7 episodes too, not so that I could include references or repurpose particular lines, but just to pick up a few pointers. So the fact that it included the actor who played Blake of Blake’s 7 was a pleasing irony. Unlike The Space Race, it was very much an attempt to recreate that era of Doctor Who, even down to imagining what the sets would look like and how they would have been lit had it been made back in 1977. They would probably look much like the one you see above. So place your orders for that now too.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Everybody's Talkin'



This week sees the release of Doctor Who: Babblesphere, another audio adventure by yours truly, and the latest instalment in the ongoing Destiny of the Doctor series. It’s narrated and performed by Lalla Ward, (who I’m sure you know played Romana in the TV series in the late 70s) with Roger Parrot playing various supporting roles and all sorts of marvellous evocative sound design by Steven Foxon (it’s a combination of audio play and talking book, a bit like Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles series but narrated in the third person).

I’m told that Lalla enjoyed the recording – I wasn’t there, alas – even going so far as to say that it was one of the best Doctor Who stories she’d done not to be written by Douglas Adams. I report this not to boast – well, maybe a bit – but just as a reminder to myself, when I’m having my next long, dark, night of feeling utterly devoid of talent* that it wasn’t always the case. I’m also told that she liked some bits so much she read them out to her husband, the inspirational Richard Dawkins. So that’s quite a high recommendation.

The story concerns the decline and fall of an Earth colony in the distant future, where the adoption of an extreme form of social networking has resulted in tyranny. It’s not the most subtle of satires ever written! It’s a little bit Douglas Adams-y in style (mainly through trying to evoke the Doctor Who stories upon which he worked, rather than his writing style) and maybe it’s the sort of thing he’d be writing (much, much better) if he was still around. It also includes numerous Doctor Who in-jokes and references, some of which are so obscure there should be a prize for spotting them.

It’s a story I’ve had ‘kicking around’ for a few years now (at one point it was even topical!). At one point it was going to be an audio adventure for Tom Baker, but something happened, and at another point it was going to be a comic strip, but again, something happened. I always thought it was one of those ideas that’s so obvious it’s inevitable that somebody would do it sooner or later, so that person might as well be me.

You can order the story on CD from AudioGo or as a download from Big Finish, and listen to (more or less) the first three minutes of the story here.


By way of a taster, here’s a glimpse of what might have been; the first page of the story when it was going to be a DWM comic strip called Witter way back in 2009. I only got as far as a synopsis with the rest of it, so this is all there is...

Doctor Who: Witter

Draft 1

PAGE ONE

Panel 1

BOX ONE:

TOTALLYSHANE MORE RAIN! NEVER RAINS BUT IT POURS!

A futuristic city in a state of decay. Brutalist architecture. A block of flats, a cross between the San-Chi ghost hotel, and one of those hamster homes connected with tubes. Crumbling concrete daubed with graffiti, overgrown with lichen and straggling plants. Logan’s Run gone to seed. It’s overcast and raining heavily. Puddles in the walkways. In the distance, tube trains.

SHANE is looking out of the window whilst cleaning his teeth. He’s skinny, 20, and wearing pants and a t-shirt. His hair is shaved in a crew cut. His eyes are bleary and vacant; not like a zombie, but as though he hasn’t slept for weeks.

Beside this frame, there’s a box listing the ongoing responses, like a list, each prefixed with a small icon of someone’s face, or a playful cat, or an identifying symbol.

BOX TWO:

DERRICK66 WHAT DID I DRINK LAST NIGHT? OR, MORE TO THE POINT, WHAT DIDN’T I DRINK LAST NIGHT! LOL!

Panel 2

Inside SHANE’s flat. Futuristic mod-cons in a state of disrepair. Plates in the sink. Books, magazines and discs scattered. Barely a spare inch of floor or sofa space. SHANE is fixing himself breakfast, yawning as he gazes into the fridge – in which there are a series of identical white foil takeaway containers.

BOX ONE:

TOTALLYSHANE CORNFLAKES OR TOAST? CAN’T DECIDE! #BREAKFAST

BOX TWO:

TRISHBABE CHANGED HER RELATIONSHIP STATUS TO ‘IT’S COMPLICATED’.
THECLIVEMEISTER NOT GOING TO WORK. HAVE LAZAR FLU. ALL SNEEZY. :-(

Panel 3

SHANE’s incredibly dull morning continues. He’s gone for cornflakes, which he munches as he gazes up at a television – a black and white portable – fixed high up in the far corner of the room whilst he absent-mindedly scratches his arse.

Reveal that SHANE has a small computer-chip implant on the side of his head,

BOX ONE:

TOTALLYSHANE HAS A HEADACHE. ODD. FEELS FUNNY.

BOX TWO:

LUCY74 SENT TRISHBABE A HUG.
MYNAMEISBARRY IS HAVING SAUSAGES. OM NOM NOM. #BREAKFAST
LONELYDAVE CAN’T GET OVER LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE OF THE FLEX.

Panel 4

Suddenly, SHANE is staggering, weak, a dazed look in his eyes, forehead frowning. He’s not quite dropped the cornflakes, but the milk and flakes are sloshing out of the bowl.

BOX ONE:

TOTALLYSHANE FEELS LIKE MY BRAIN IS ON FIRE!!!

BOX TWO:

DERRICK66 KNOW THE FEELING, TOTALLYSHANE! LOL!
BIGBELINDA HAS LOST ONE KG. FOR THE WIN!!! (LUCY74 LIKES THIS.)
TIMF003 DON’T GO GIVING ME SPOILERS, LONELYDAVE, NOT SEEN IT YET!

Panel 5

SHANE collapses to the floor, screaming and writhing in silent agony, as though he’s having an epileptic fit, as smoke pours out of his ears, eyes, nostrils and mouth.

BOX ONE:

TOTALLYSHANE OMG! OMG! OMG! AAAAARGH! EPIC FAIL!

BOX TWO:

THECLIVEMEISTER CHOSE HIS TOP FIVE MOVIES FEATURING MONKEYS.
MYNAMEISBARRY FRIED TOMATOES. OM NOM NOM. #BREAKFAST
GOSS0074 POSTED A PICTURE OF HIS CAT EATING A BISCUIT.

Panel 6

SHANE’s corpse lies on the floor, still smoking, face-down in his cornflakes bowl.

BOX ONE:

TOTALLYSHANE IS OFFLINE.

* Every night except Tuesdays.