The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Melting Pot

Another article dragged from the archives, this time a piece originally published in The Complete Third Doctor magazine back in 2002. I say ‘dragged from the archives’ but I couldn’t find it, so I typed it out again, resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to tweak it, as the writing style is amazingly clunky and I disagree with most of it!


“The past is a foreign country”, as the saying goes, and pasts don’t come much more foreign than the 1970s; a strange, unworldly place, with garish, ill-fitting clothes, chunky spectacles, and powerful trade unions. Being born too late to have experienced it all first-hand, the 1970s is a foreign country that I can only learn about through books and television programmes. I don’t watch 1970s Doctor Whos out of nostalgia, but out of historical curiosity.

The Mutants is a profoundly dated piece of television. And that is what is so great about it. It’s obviously part of the same era as Bowie on Top Of The Pops, Love Thy Neighbour and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It even opens with a ragged, panting “It’s...” man! It’s informed by post-colonial guilt, where the villains are the empire-builders and the heroes are the wronged natives. It embraces the birth of the counter-culture, what lazy researchers call ‘Flower Power’, an obsession with spiritualism, environmentalism, and wearing far too many beads. And it features that peculiar brand of low-maintenance psychaedelia that the BBC adopted in the early 1970s in order to justify the new colour license fee. 

In other words, it is very, very groovy. But it’s also rather peculiar to watch a Jon Pertwee story, as I grew up with these tales through the books. It’s odd how the stories always seem so much slower and laborious because of the amount of waffle Terrance Dicks excised from his novelisations.

On the other hand, though, you get to see the monsters; in this case, the staggering Mutts, which so successfully distort the human body shape that it’s difficult to believe that they contain John Scott Martin. And you can see the actors, most of whom seem to have been employed under some sort of international exchange programme – one wonders whether Michael Sheard spent six months appearing in a Soviet sci-fi show in return for George Pravda. You also get to see the dangerous-looking explosions – particularly on the two occasions that George Pravda is forced to lean over a desk primed to detonate – and the beautifully-achieved effect of Super-Ky gliding down spaceship corridors. And most of all, you have Tristram Cary’s gorgeous, scintillating incidental music; a bizarre, space-rock score performed on vintage Moog synthesizers – well, they were state-of-the-art synthesizers at the time – which sounds like the missing link between Wendy Switched-On Bach Carlos, Rick Wakeman and traffic-cone-era Kraftwerk.

The Mutants is also the first proper Doctor Who story of the 1970s. It is vibrant, imaginative and fun, whereas all of those preceding it – where the Doctor works for the army – were rather drab, serious and lacklustre, with greeny-grey monsters fighting greeny-grey soldiers in a greeny-grey power station. With The Mutants, Doctor Who gets back to doing what it does best – fantastic, colourful adventures in time and space. Colony in Space and The Curse of Peladon are the first buds of hope, but with The Mutants you can see Doctor Who flowering again.

The other unusual thing about The Mutants is that it is actually about something. Doctor Who stories only ever had a point to them during the early 1970s; Doctor Who under Barry Letts was very much a forerunner for John Craven’s Newsround. Each story would explore a topical issue, whether it be entry into the Common Market or more esoteric concerns such as the ethics of war. Admittedly, it never did so to any great depth, but it did nonetheless present clear and justified arguments for the children.

The Mutants’ case is simple and straightforward: why are we granting independence to our former colonies? Because we have reduced our own world to ash and clinker, what right do we have to impose our society onto others? Because the colonists are ugly, sadistic and mad? Because the natives are brave and resourceful – if occasionally a bit quick to take offence and squabble amongst themselves?

It’s frustrating that the story poses difficult and complex questions but only gives easy answers. After all, if Earth is a poisonous slagheap, where are all the people supposed to live? And if the Marshall wasn’t ugly, sadistic and mad, would he still be a villain? But it’s nevertheless laudable that Doctor Who, at least for a while, wore its ideology on its sleeve. Nowadays, of course, a children’s TV show would never dare to address a contentious political issue. Which is a great shame; television should have a point to it. Like it did in the early 1970s.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Beautiful Killer

While I’ve been posting all these Shakespeare reviews I’ve been neglecting the core purpose of this blog, which is to blow my own trumpet and plug my own stuff. So in order to make up for that, a plug for the Vienna series 1 box set which was released by Big Finish earlier this month, starring Chase Masterson as Vienna, the impossibly glamorous intergalactic assassin.

I’ve blogged previously about the ‘pilot’ for the series, The Memory Box. With the first series, it’s given me an opportunity to do fantastic things; firstly, to develop the character and explore her back-story, and secondly, to give other writers a chance to write Vienna stories.

The box set, currently available from Big Finish as a download or CD box, consists of three stories. The first is Dead Drop by Mark Wright, and is a no-holds-barred rollercoaster ride as Vienna finds herself on board a spaceship in the middle of a warzone, where everything that can wrong, does. It’s action-packed, heart-racing, white-knuckle-ride stuff and that’s just from reading the script. It’s a sci-fi spectacular.

The second is Bad Faith by Nev Fountain, and is harder to describe because it’s so, well, original. It’s very funny, incredibly imaginative, includes a wonderful alien race, the Kreyfin, and contains more twists and turns than a twisty-turny thing; Nev is known for his ingenious twists from stories like Omega and Peri and the Piscon Paradox and with this story I think he surpassed even those.

And the third is Deathworld, by me. Which is kind of a densely-plotted mash-up of every sci-fi book I’ve ever read and every film I’ve ever seen, as well as the original myth of the assassins, and which concerns the nature of identity, memory and reality itself, where nothing and nobody is quite what they seem.

What I’ve tried to do with these stories is to tell a different sort of science fiction story. You see, the ‘science’ in science fiction usually refers to technology or astrophysics, when it can apply to any science – psychology, economics, even philosophy. The sort of science fiction that was written by Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut and which is still being written by Ursula K Le Guin, Brian Aldiss and  Christopher Priest, which isn’t about the technology of ‘hard science fiction’ but which concerns the state of consciousness, of imaginary realms where reality, dreams and virtual reality interact, where the stories are about inner worlds rather than outer reaches. At its best, it’s mind-bending stuff that gives you the same vertiginous feeling of arriving at a new vista or understanding a new concept - a ‘consciousness-expanding drug’. It’s an area ripe for exploration, it’s about extraordinary ideas and generates great, dramatic stories, and that’s what I find exciting. Vienna still has all the trappings of science fiction, laser guns, spaceships, robots, aliens and distant planets – but the stories are about ideas of telepathic hive-minds, subconscious programming, belief systems that you can inject into your brain, unreliable narrators, unreliable memories, unreliable realities.

Hopefully it’s giving people something they haven’t had before, to not just push the envelope but to tear it to pieces and stick it in a blender, to tell the boldest, weirdest, most thrilling, most unpredictable, most mind-boggling stories imaginable.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Faster Than The Speed Of Night

Another feature from the archives... a piece originally written for The Complete Fifth Doctor magazine published back in 2002.


When I was 8 I wrote Doctor Who stories and fill up notebooks with page after page of illegible pencil. Originality, however, was not my strong point. Each story consisted of my favourite bits from the books, annuals, comics and the TV show, plus the latest facts I had committed to memory from Doctor Who Monthly. They concentrated on the things that fascinated me; spaceships, robots and monsters. And, more often than not, the resulting stories were a lot like Four To Doomsday.

Starting was easy. One of the first things I had learned from the books was that all Doctor Who stories begin with the TARDIS landing somewhere which at first appears to be deserted. The Doctor and his companions should then split up to explore and discover it is not as deserted as it at first appeared. Simple.

Characterisation was more of a problem. The Doctor had just changed and I had no idea how Peter Davidson would play the role. So I just wrote him as Tristram from All Creatures Great And Small, although half the time he would still talk and act like Tom Baker.

I was also unfamiliar with the companions, so I wrote them with one character trait each. Adric liked maths. Nyssa liked pointing out what machines were called. And Tegan was unaccountably cross and thought everybody was mad.

Monsters were important. On TV they had given up doing proper monsters and just made the baddies men with beards. This was, I felt, wrong. The baddy should be a green, slimy monster. Called something like the Master, but not the Master. Monarch!

Doctor Who facts were exciting. I loved them. So I had to stick in mentions for Gallifrey, Artron energy, the Master, Rassilon and the Eye Of Harmony even though they had nothing to do with the story. Someone had written in to Matrix Data Bank asking for a list of rooms in the TARDIS; so Adric would proclaim that the TARDIS contains ‘…a power room, a bathroom, even cloisters!’ [to which Monarch would reply, ‘That’s nice, dear’ like a long-suffering parent].

Jokes were important too. Luckily I had just seen a Benny Hill in which he played a funny Chinaman. ‘I am Lin Futu’. ‘Well, I’d never have guessed it, you look in the best of health to me’.

The story was, by necessity, made up as it went along. For the first episode, it would be about spaceships. Then I would grow bored of that and make it about robots. Then it would be about people floating in space. Eventually I’d find myself half-way down the twelfth page and it would be time to start thinking about an ending. The monster could shrink, like in The Sun Makers! Excellent. I had my story.

Of course, it made no sense. Monarch needs to breathe air except in the first episode when he doesn’t. The spaceship is going back and forth to Urbanka to collect humans, but later on it transpires that Urbanka was destroyed and the baddies want to invade the Earth. How do they intend to do this? They plan to use Adric to persuade the people of Earth to let them take over. Why do they want to invade the Earth? Because…er…because its mineral wealth will allow Monarch to travel in time. Right.

So I think it is fair to say that I, as an 8 year-old, would have written something quite like Four To Doomsday. But that is not a criticism. Not at all. That is praise. Because Four To Doomsday is exactly the sort of Doctor Who story I wanted to watch, a story which catered perfectly to my tastes and obsessions… Spaceships, robots and monsters.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Bound In A Nutshell

Part 3 of my review of the BBC Shakespeare Hamlet, which can be watched on YouTube.


The Queen informs her husband about the bloody murder of Polonius. But the body is missing - what the f*ck has Hamlet done with it? The King orders Rosie and Guildy to find out - they are still 'friends' with Hamlet, after all, he might take them into his confidence.


Rosie and Guildy bump into Hamlet in a corridor, and he has a bit of a go at them for being the King's lap-dogs, or 'sponges'.


Hamlet is recaptured by the King's troops, and - whilst still pretending to be mad - eventually admits what he has done with Polonius' corpse - he's dumped him under some stairs. Hearing of this foul deed, Claudius is now in fear for his life - so he decides that rather than being merely banished to England, Hamlet should meet with a little 'accident' en route. Who should do this wicked deed? Rosie and Guildy!


Elsewhere in Ellsinore, near the shore of Ellsinore, Rosie and Guildy have brought Hamlet, ready for him to be placed on board the first ship for England. Why England? This is never really explained in any great depth, and indeed there's quite a funny exchange about this very point in Act V scene 1, where someone points out that, being bonkers, Hamlet will fit right in.

As he waits to begin his exile, Hamlet sees the massed troops of Norway marching to a war with Poland they know they will lose, because it is too well-defended. This immediately puts Hamlet in mind of his own predicament - this army is, almost literally, taking 'arms against a sea of troubles'. They are prepared to do the right thing, even if it means their deaths, even if it changes nothing - because it is the right thing to do.

And this leads Hamlet onto another soliloquy, a follow-up to the 'to be' one, and just as good in my opinion but nowhere near as famous. It's a sort of precursor of Kipling's 'If'.

What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time, be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more! Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us, unus'd. Now, whether it be bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th' event-

i.e. thinking too much

A thought which, quater'd, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward -

Yes, okay, we got the point.

- I do not know why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do'. Sith, I have cause, and will, and strength, and means, to do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me! Witness, this army of such mass and charge...exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare - even for an eggshell!

Okay, so he drifted off the point towards the end there - I'm not sure about the whole eggshell metaphor - but the point is Hamlet is no longer umming and ahhing about whether to be or not. He's decided. He's going to be. He's going to fight. He's going to f*ck em, f*ck the lot of em!

He concludes, that, to be a man, my son:

Rightly, to be great, is not to stir without great argument - but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour's at the stake! How stand I, then, that have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, excitements of my reason and my blood - and let all sleep, while to my shame I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men? ...O, from this time forth - my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

Brilliant. Can't understand why it's not as famous as the rest of it. Hamlet reasons that if you are fighting evil, you shouldn't wait for 'good reason' or 'proof' - just get the f*ck on with it, man!

And, as Tony Blair discovered, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG.


Back in the castle, and the King and Queen are getting a bit worried about Ophelia. Not only has her boyfriend dumped her and killed her dad - but now she's started bloody singing as well!

To be fair, the lovely Lalla is very good here, and by way of a contrast to Hamlet's pretend madness, the character's nervous breakdown and PTSD is very sensitively depicted. I'm not totally sure about the choice of song, though - it's a rather tawdry drinking song about a man who promises to marry a girl to get her into bed, but who, once he’s shagged her, tells her that he doesn't want to marry her now, as he only marries the sorts of girls who don't shag around willy nilly. Are we supposed to infer from this that Hamlet has in fact shagged Ophelia? I don't know. I’m not an expert!

Gertrude writes a quick postcard to Laertes, telling him about recent events and, in particular, the distressed state of his sister. 'Something rotten in state Denmark. Wish you were here.'

Seconds later Laertes walks in, clutching said postcard, in a foul mood. His sister is delighted to see him and snogs his face off. Icky. Laertes asks how Ophelia got into this state, so the King tells him it was all Hamlet's fault - and that Laertes will now be his successor.

And then Ophelia starts bloody singing again. With a hey ho and a hey nonny no..


Down at the docks, Horatio is having fun with some rough sailors when the postie arrives with a postcard from Hamlet. The postcard explains that Hamlet's boat got boarded by pirates - PIRATES! - and that he became their prisoner, until they realised who he was and, in return for the promise of some ready cash, took him all the way back to Denmark. Hamlet then goes on to say that he has some other shit-hot news but it will have to wait till he can tell him in person.

Oh, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? They are still sailing for England, apparently. 


Laertes is having a bit of a conference with King Claudius. Why the f*ck didn't you just have Hamlet executed for murdering Polonius, rather than exiling him? Claudius explains that he couldn't have Hamlet killed, because it would upset his mother, and Claudius loves her so he doesn't really want to see her upset.

In rushes a messenger with the shit-hot news that Hamlet is back in town. And he's naked, apparently. Not quite sure about this bit, to be honest. I mean, tackle out?

The King talks some shit for a few minutes, then eventually comes up with a plan. Laertes is good at sword fighting - he should challenge Hamlet to a duel. And just to make sure that Hamlet is killed, Laertes' sword will be tipped with a poison, so that one scratch would prove fatal!

Butthe King isn't one of those rubbish villains who hasn't got a plan B. Just in case Hamlet looks like he is winning the duel and Laertes doesn't scratch him, they will offer Hamlet a refreshing glass of water to quench the thirst he will have worked up. This water will also, of course, be poisoned. With an unction incurable and instantaneously fatal.

Laertes agrees it is a good plan. They have thought of everything. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

There is a willow grows aslant a brook...

And then Gertrude rushes in with the bad news. Apparently Ophelia was wandering the garden in her nightie, pale and gaunt, in a sort of sleepwalk Lady Macbeth-style, singing quietly to herself, when, reaching for a flower overhanging a misty, stagnant pond, the branch she was standing on broke and she slipped into the water, and then lay there, still singing sad songs peacefully to herself as the water slipped over her head and she drowned, her hair floating around her like water weed.

I mean, wow. How f*cking goth is that? That is like so totally goth. That is goth up to eleven. It’s like, oh, something out of a Nick Cave video.

(Note: it is also quite pre-Raphaelite as well as being goth)


Getting near the end now. A couple of gravediggers are digging a grave for Ophelia - 'Do you dig graves?' 'Yeah, they're all right, yeah'. They are a little resentful that Ophelia is being given a Christian burial when she committed suicide, and they conclude it's one rule for the knobs and one for the nobbed.

Hamlet wanders in, in another of his funny moods, and one of the gravediggers hands him a skull he has dug up, saying that the skull belonged to Yorick. And this is where I'm afraid I'm going to have to take issue with REDACTED, because the play makes it clear that the same gravedigger has been working in the churchyard for twenty years, and so he can remember that he dug a grave for Yorick in the same spot, which is how he identifies the skull.

Alas poor Yorrick - I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

Incidentally, there are no Welsh people in this play. The only Shakespeares with Welsh people in are, I think, Cymbeline, Henry IV, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor. Look you!

Anyway, Hamlet concludes that death is final, there is no afterlife... and then, when the King and Queen walk in with pall-bearers carrying Ophelia, he suddenly realises who the grave is for.

Sweets to the sweet! Farewell!

Laertes is not entirely chuffed to see Hamlet - the guy who he thinks is responsible for his sister's madness and eventual death. Hamlet, however, is distraught to see Ophelia dead, and they end up having a 'okay, who feels the worst right now?' competition.

It looks like it's going to end in fisticuffs, until Horatio says 'Leave it! He's not worth it!' and drags Hamlet away for a quiet drink in a nearby pub. They have pubs in this castle, okay? It’s f*cking Denmark.


Over a couple of shandies, Hamlet explains that when he was with the pirates, he found a letter from the King ordering Rosie and Guildy to kill him before they reached England. This discovery has only made Hamlet more determined to wreak his revenge...

...and then it comes time for the big duel, which, in the BBC production, takes place in a big hall.

I'm not going to go into any great detail. Suffice it to say that Hamlet behaves very nobly and honourably towards Laertes, and tries to apologise, but Laertes mind has been poisoned towards Hamlet by the King, and so a swordfight is inevitable (and a good way to end a play).

Of course, being Shakespeare, it's one of those incredibly chatty swordfights...

A hit! A very palpable hit!

...whilst the King watches, keeping a devious eye on the cup of poisoned 'water' he has prepared for Hamlet if Laertes doesn't scratch him with his pre-poisoned sword.

With Hamlet winning, a bell sounds 'ding-ding' to mark the end of the first round. The next bit, though, is a bit confusing. The Queen is mopping Hamlet's brow, when the King asks her to give Hamlet the poisoned water. However, for some reason I'm not entirely clear about, the Queen drinks it. Is it an accident? Or suicide? Or does she do it to save her son’s life?

Or maybe it's a bit of all three at once. That said, after drinking it she does seem to offer the cup to Hamlet, who refuses it, so maybe it's all a big cock-up. Whoopsadaisy!

Anyway, with the Queen fatally poisoned but not actually quite yet dead if looking a little green around the arras, the fighting resumes - and Hamlet is wounded with the poisoned sword. And then Laertes is also wounded with the poisoned sword. It's all a bit mad and violent and bloody, basically.

And then the Queen dies.

Seeing that he has been scratched with the poison, Laertes explains to Hamlet that he too has been 'slain', telling him all about the King's 'poison the little sod' plan. 'The king's to blame'. And so Hamlet, finally getting his f*cking act together after four hours, stabs him.

And then the King dies.

And then Laertes dies (after neatly observing the inherent irony of the situation).

But Hamlet? He's not quite dead yet. His chum Horatio is so distraught at his fate that he too tries to drink the poison, but Hamlet tells him not to be so bloody stupid; if there's no-one left alive, no-one will be able to tell the story of Hamlet, will they? And it's a bloody great story.

And then Hamlet dies.

The rest is silence!

By which he means not that the rest of the play is silent – there’s still some dialogue to go - but that he has now finally, found an escape from his sorrows. At last, he will try and get some rest.

And then Fortinbras, King of Norway, saunters in to discover dead bodies scattered about the place. Horatio explains what has been going on, and Fortinbras announces that Hamlet should have a soldier's burial. He also mentions that he, Fortinbras, will now be King of Denmark, since all the other candidates are lying about the place turning green with their tongues hanging out.

And then, just when things can't get any more dramatic, an Englishman runs in with the news...

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead!

Apparently he killed them on the orders of the late King (who was presumably trying to cover his tracks re: the murder of Hamlet)... who is unfortunately no longer in a position to thank him.

And on that bombshell, they carry out Hamlet's body, a drum sounds, all goes dark and...

The end!!!

And that’s it. That’s all of Shakespeare.