The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Small World

Another blast from the Doctor Who Magazine archives, this time a piece written about the much-admired Tom Baker Doctor Who story The Invisible Enemy. I’ve written a sequel which will be released later this year. Pre-order it now! 

The Invisible Enemy

Ah, Graham, Graham! Come in, sit down. Been meaning to have a word. See how you’ve been settling in.

As you know, you were asked to take over as producer of Doctor Who – super show, – because it had come to my attention that the previous chap – has he emptied his desk yet? – had been making it a little too… brusque. Aubergines coming to life, bursting through shop windows, holding people’s heads underwater, that sort of thing

Now, as Head of Drama at the BBC, one thing I don’t like is things coming to my attention. I’m a busy man, I don’t have time to go around paying attention to things. Avoid it whenever I can. So that’s why you were brought in. No more shootings, no more stabbings and absolutely no more aubergines. 

So tell me about your first show. What’s it called?

Excellent! Sounds perfect. And so budget-conscious! So much cheaper than having a visible enemy!

Oh, I see. It’s just very, very small. Well, that still sounds super. So, how was your first day in the job?

Now Graham, there’s no need to cry. Just start at the beginning and tell me what’s wrong.

What do you mean, “we’ve got a script that’s impossible to make”? That script was commissioned by the previous producer! Have you tried phoning him up?

Yes, and what did he say when he stopped laughing?

“Without a paddle”, I see. But it can’t be that difficult. What makes you think you can’t afford it?

You don’t have to build real spaceships, you can use models, you know.

Oh, I see, that fee was for the models. What else?

A robot dog called K-9? And how much did this ‘Matt Irvine’ person that would cost?

Can’t you just get a dachshund and wrap it in bacofoil? You’re not making Star Wars, you know! So, what happens in the story.

Two Tom Bakers?

Oh, I see, the same Tom Baker twice, for the same fee. Almost gave me a heart attack! And this all takes place where?

Are you sure you can’t set it in a gothic mansion? Only we get a discount if we film on National Trust property. Your predecessor was very keen.

No? Well, maybe you can bear it in mind for the next one. And this “not actually invisible, but very, very small” enemy. How much did Matt say that would cost?

Good grief. And that’s for…?

"A bin bag with a pincer sticking out the side". Well, I might be able to help you out there. The Crackerjack Christmas special last year had a giant comedy prawn, took it home for the kids, you could use that. Terrifying in the right light.

Graham, hiding under the desk whimpering won’t solve anything. Have my hankie. One last thing. About that new girl…

Yes, she does rather, doesn’t she? Could you have her back in the leathers? Saw her in the Victorian thing. Most discouraging. Except for that bit in the sewers.

Well, I think we’ve covered everything. Just remember – it doesn’t have to be good, just get it made and make sure everyone’s out of the studio before you start paying overtime. Oh, and before you go, what’s the next story about?

Vampire Mutations? Ah. That might be a problem…

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Child Psychology

As you’ll know if you follow me on twitter, the Big Finish websitehas been updated with the cover and details for my forthcoming Doctor Who audio Psychodrome, featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor, Janet Fielding as Tegan, Sarah Sutton as Nyssa and the legendary Matthew Waterhouse as the no less-mythical Adric. The story is hard to describe without giving away ‘spoilers’; I would say, however, that it is almost completely unlike any other Doctor Who story there has ever been, and yet it shares motifs with a number of other stories, and that it is probably by most ‘experimental’ Doctor Who story since, oh, Flip-Flop. That’s not to say my other stories aren’t experimental, I’d say that nearly every single one is an experiment, or an attempt to innovate, in one way or another. But Psychodrome is out there. In the past I’ve written stories that are ‘tributes’ to Douglas Adams, Robert Holmes, Eric Saward (as well as Charles Dickens, PG Wodehouse, MR James, Philip K Dick, Mary Shelley, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle). Well, Psychodrome is a tribute to the mind-expanding inspiration of Christopher H Bidmead.

It was a strange and wonderful experience, listening to the story being recorded, hearing the same cast that I’d been watching on telly back when I was seven saying words that I’d written, thirty-odd years later. If I could go back and tell my seven-year-old self, he’d be amazed.

Actually, no, he wouldn’t. He’d say:

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Hang on, back up a bit. You can time travel?”

ME: “For the purposes of this hypothetical conversation, yes.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “And you’ve travelled back in time to tell me that you write Doctor Who stories?”

ME: “Well, yes. I thought you’d be pleased, and impressed.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Well, to be honest, I’d kind of hoped my career would pan out a bit better, but that’s not the issue. No, the issue is the fact that you have the ability to move in the fourth dimension, and you use that ability to tell your younger self that you write Doctor Who stories. Rather than, say, preventing the tragic murder of John Lennon, which happened last year.”

ME: “I’ll get to that next, I just thought...”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Or you could be telling me something useful about my own future, like, I don’t know, how to avoid future injuries, or if I’ll ever get a girlfriend and whether it will work out.”

ME: “Don’t go there, you don’t want to know, seriously.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Or maybe some good investment information. I mean, it’s 1981 now, what’s going to be hot thirty-odd years from now? What should I be buying shares in? Are computers going to be big?”

ME: “I can’t really say, you know, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Are you having a stroke, old man?”

ME: “No. It’s... an expression we use in the future.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Sounds a bit childish if you ask me.”

ME: “Anyway, point is, I can’t tell you without causing a potential time paradox, unravelling the web of time, all that stuff.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “But telling me I will write Doctor Who stories featuring the current-line up thirty years in the future won’t jeopardise the web of time?”

ME: “Probably not, no.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “But it might.”

ME: “I suppose so. To be honest, I was in such a rush to pop back and give you the good news, I didn’t really think it through.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Because you could be changing the whole course of history by telling me this. It could mean that, I don’t know, when you get back to 2014 there will be terrible storms and stuff.”

ME: “Funny you should say that.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “I mean, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back and talk to my younger self. You’ve got all of history to explore. You could see the future. You could even talk to your future self. Get some career advice, it sounds as if you will need it.”

ME: “I’m beginning to regret this whole conversation now, to be honest. I’d forgotten I used to be such an obnoxious know-it-all.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “So, anyway, let me get this straight. In thirty-odd years’ time, you do, as a job, what I do, as a hobby?”

ME: “More or less, though I wouldn’t call it a job as such...”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “But you do it professionally?”

ME: “Yes.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Well, that is quite impressive, actually. Well done.”

ME: “Thank you.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “And these stories, with the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan, they put them on the telly?”

ME: “No.”


ME: “There’s an audio company that – ”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Yeah, yeah, whatever. So, do you still write everything out in pencil and staple the pages together at the end?”

ME: “No, it’s all typing. I wouldn’t bother with handwriting, you’ll never use it, it’s a complete waste of time.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “But you do get to do stapling?”

ME: “Not really, no.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “But that’s the best bit!”

ME: “I know, but it just doesn’t come up as often as it did. Anyway, it’s time I should be returning to the future, I’ve got a deadline.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “You have a time machine and still can’t hit deadlines? So tell me something about the future. There must be something else going on as well as you writing Doctor Who stories. Who’s the Prime Minister? Do we have a moonbase? Have they brought back Blake’s Seven?”

ME: “You don’t even like Blake’s Seven. You think it’s jejune.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “What about Sapphire & Steel? I assume Doctor Who is still going, right?”

ME: “Yes, it is, but I can’t tell you anymore, because, you know, spoilers.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “What are ‘spoilers’?”

ME: “They’re a thing we have in the future, to tell you anymore would ruin the surprise. Anyway, see you, younger self.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Yeah, sod off, baldy.”

ME: “And just remember, keep plugging away and writing Doctor Who stories, because then one day, you will turn out to be me.”

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD-ME: “Yeah. I think I might see if I can become a professional Lego builder instead.”

Psychodrome can be ordered here as part of The Fifth Doctor Box Set.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

It's Not The End Of The World?

Another review/appreciation from the archives. This was for the 40th anniversary special, We Heart Doctor Who. 


“Logic tells you the world is round. But logic is a new toy.”

Something strange happened in 1985. On television, Colin Baker had become the new Doctor Who, ‘whether you like it or not’. His stories were brash, brutal, and black-humoured. They were over-deferent to the show’s history, and the shortfall between the show’s ambition and its realisation - never a short shortfall at the best of times - became conspicuously large.

Meanwhile in Doctor Who Magazine, a story unfolded where Doctor Who was uncompromised by BBC budgets and unbowed by precedent. Never before had the series been taken so far into the high seas of the bizarre, the abstract and the mythic. Voyager not only took Doctor Who to the edge of its universe, it pushed it over. It was freewheeling and enigmatic; it was eye-popping and jaw-dropping; it was light years away from the corridors of Karfel. Month by month, Doctor Who blossomed into something wonderful and strange.

Obviously the intention was to top The Tides Of Time. Where that story had flirted with the surreal, Voyager embraced it. The rolling, stream-of-consciousness narrative exists in a dreamlike state with no dividing line between the real and the imaginary. The eponymous Voyager and the story’s villain, Astrolabus, come to the Doctor in vertiginous visions, sending him plummeting through empty space, or teetering from a lighthouse-top.

Voyager does not even conform to our preconceptions about what constitutes a story. It begins as a mystery about an ice-bound ship and missing star-chart which then climaxes with a bewildering encounter between the Doctor and Astrolabus. Then, half-way through the next tale, the whimsical and traditional Polly The Glot, we are sent plunging back through the floor into the unresolved plot of Voyager. And finally there is Once Upon A Time Lord, where the weirdness so overwhelms the story that it - unforgettably – switches into the idiom of a Rupert The Bear annual, complete with headlines – ‘FROBISHER EATS A WORM’ - and doggerel couplets. And then Astrolabus, who seems unusually aware of his own fictional status, escapes onto the next page, determined to make it to the next episode…

But the story is also grounded in reality. Firstly, by the humour – slapstick, occasionally sinister and occasionally sublime. We encounter the Akkers, the dullest race in the universe, with ‘grey alerts’ and a soporific line in conversation. Secondly, there is Frobisher, adopting his penguin suit for the first time and undercutting the oddness with wisecracks and sympathy.

Most of all, there is John Ridgeway’s artwork. Every scene, no matter how fantastic or humdrum, is given the same gritty, gravelly, meticulously detailed, cross-hatched look. He makes stunningly plausible the Da Vinci Original, the automaton, the zyglots and the edge of the world.

Of course, it doesn’t make any sense. That’s kind of the point – it doesn’t need to. It is a triumph of atmosphere, of effect, and makes no concessions to plausibility. And discovering that Doctor Who could do that was a revelation. I didn’t know it could go there, and I wish it would go there again.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


I was sad to hear of the passing of comics writer Steve Moore. One brief footnote in his illustrious and prolific career was his work on the Doctor Who Weekly comic, writing both the back-up strips and the lead. The back-up strips had an odd format, presenting further adventures around Doctor Who monsters and villains, presenting former antagonists as protagonists. What they did for any young reader was to create the sense of a ‘world of Doctor Who’, of a fascinating universe above and beyond the bits encountered by the Doctor on television. Monsters not glimpsed on screen for over ten years (literally a lifetime as far as readers were concerned) were brought to life in thrilling escapades of their own, and all on the basis of a few murky production stills, a novelisation, and the writer’s own memory.

Two of Steve Moore’s finest creations in the back-up strip were Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer and Kroton the Cyberman. Abslom Daak was an unrepentant psychopath, sent in lieu of execution to a Dalek-occupied world to cause as much mayhem with his chain-sword as possible. It’s hard to think a more exciting premise. Kroton, meanwhile, was a Cyberman who developed a ‘soul’ and emotions; he came into his own as a protagonist of his own adventure Ship of Fools, a haunting re-working of the Flying Dutchman legend. It’s a testament to the strength of these two creations that they had a life beyond these brief appearances in the Doctor Who Weekly comic strip, Abslom Daak returning in a number of adventures in the main strip, and Kroton eventually becoming a companion.

The great thing about both the first Abslom Daak story and Ship of Fools is that they both have gut-churning twists on the final page. And that’s one of the two things I learned from Steve Moore; that comic strips can pack an emotional punch, and can move you to laughter, nightmares or even tears. In the latest Doctor Who Magazine I counted the shock ending of Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer as one of the best ‘Dalek moments’ of all time.

The other thing I learned comes from (in my humble opinion) his best work on the magazine, the lead comic strip Spider-God. It’s an extraordinary demonstration of economic storytelling, and storytelling not through dialogue, but through a succession of shocking, enchanting, terrifying images that still stick with me thirty years later; the eerie silent village with its blank-eyed occupants; the night sky full of stars and strange moons; the emergence of the spider; the cocoons dangling from its web; the hatching egg; the final stunning metamorphosis. You could remove all the dialogue and still follow the story. And it packs one hell of a punch, ending with the Doctor plaintively remarking ‘Now do you see what you’ve done?’ followed by a single panel of Commander Frederic dropping his laser gun. One of the finest moments in the strip ever.

(I always wondered whether the planet was intended to be Vortis. And whether the story’s conclusion meant that the butterfly-people would become extinct. But unanswered questions are good.)

But Spider-God was just one story amongst many; Dragon’s Claw with its wonderful character of the ancient hermit; Time Witch, the definitive fantasy-universe story; The Collector, with it’s mind-boggling time paradox; the virtual-reality nightmare of Dreamers of Death. All gloriously rendered by Dave Gibbons but the product of the vivid, mind-expanding, inspiring imagination of Steve Moore.

His Doctor Who lead strips can be found in the Dragon’s Claw collection, which I strongly recommend tracking down.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

I'm Scared

Another trip down archive lane, and another article written for Doctor Who Magazine back in 2003, for the We Heart Doctor Who special edition for the 40th anniversary.


When I was about 6, Doctor Who was scary. I didn’t watch it behind the sofa, because then I wouldn’t have been able to see the screen, but I do remember being terrified of the Virus, Kroll and the Stones of Blood. But, watching those stories now, they aren’t remotely frightening. We all like to think that Doctor Who has the ability to send shivers down spines, but you’re unlikely to find any stories that do that in your DVD collection.

And that’s why I love The Chimes Of Midnight. Because it scared me. I can’t tell you how much it scared me because there are certain words which aren’t allowed in this magazine, but suffice it to say, it was a lot. It was Doctor Who as I remembered it. Doctor Who as wish it was.

What makes it so frightening is the way the script defers the answers. Ghost stories are only effective because we don’t know how ghosts work, the moment you explain that ghosts are ‘psychic projections’ then they stop being frightening. 

Episode one is an consummate exercise in creating and sustaining a mood; we venture out of the TARDIS into complete darkness and gradually divine our surroundings. One by one, we are presented with mysteries; mysteries the Doctor doesn’t know the answer to. The story itself doesn’t even begin until episode two.

And even then, the mysteries are piled on. Who is behind the murders? Why do the servants react so oddly to being killed? We are faced, again and again with the unknowable. The story plays on a basic human fear – our fear of the irrational, of being unable to predict or understand why people are behaving the way they are. What at first seems to be amiable and familiar is revealed to be inhuman and automatic. Even the Doctor cannot provide reassurance, because he is in the dark with the rest of us, and he is frightened too.

There are two very good reasons why Rob Shearman leaves it so late with the explanations. Firstly, because he knows that the best way to unsettle an audience is to confound them. And secondly, because he was making the story up as he went along and hadn’t decided what was going on until half-way through part three. I remember reading an early draft of the script where I was convinced he would reveal the villain to be the plum pudding!

But his approach to writing greatly impressed me. I am in complete awe of someone who can sit down, with no idea where a story is going, and create something which is perfectly structured and cohesive. Obviously he’s had a lot of practice.

Indeed, Chimes draws on his background in theatre. Like The Holy Terror, the story unfolds within an ‘theatrical’ space. Language is heightened and ritualistic – the cook’s over-use of ‘veritable’, the parroting of ‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas…’. There is the subversion of stereotype and cliché; in Chimes, the Upstairs Downstairs hierarchy of servants, the whodunit where the only clue is the shiftiness of the eyes. There is the reiteration of platitudes to make the insincere seem sinister; a device Shearman has employed since his breakthrough play Easy Laughter, a play which has informed much of his Doctor Who work. I strongly recommend you check it out if you get the chance.

I should also mention the humour. Shearman’s writing is extremely funny; whilst Chimes is most ‘upbeat’ Doctor Who, there is nevertheless an undercurrent of black humour. Shearman’s work is life-affirming, but only through confronting our reactions to death, to violence and cruelty. One of the finest moments for me is the ‘suicide’ of the chauffeur; it is at once absurd, hilarious and chilling. You laugh, but you laugh uneasily.

The conventions of Doctor Who require a rationale for this shift away from the traditional ‘realistic’ mode, and possibly the only weakness of the play is that it’s ‘time paradox’ explanation, whilst effective dramatically and thematically appropriate, is unsatisfying in terms of providing that tidy pseudo-scientific answer.

And yes, it’s a bit like an episode of that old ITV show, Sapphire and Steel.

The audio is still available on CD and download and can be ordered here.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Too Good To Be Forgotten

Another article from the archives, this one originally written for The Complete Second Doctor back in 2003. Interesting to compare it to the article I wrote on the same story for the recent Missing Episodes special.


I’ve never seen The Abominable Snowmen. It was wiped before I was born. I’ve not read the novelisation, or listened to the audio, or seen the telesnaps, or watched the remaining episode. I know almost nothing about it.

And yet I always rather liked the Yetis. Of all the black smudges in my held-together-by-sellotape Doctor Who Monster Book, they were the ones that caught my fascination. And because I so adored the Yetis – based upon their entry in Monsters Who Came Back For More – my mum made me a Yeti costume. I still have a photo of me, aged six, being abominable.

My mum, you see, encouraged my interest in Doctor Who. I came home one day to discover that she had painted a Dalek on my bedroom wall. And she always told me was how good Doctor Who had been with Patrick Troughton. In fact, she’s the only person I know who has actually seen The Abominable Snowmen.

So I phoned her up to ask her what she remembered.

‘I must have sneaked in to watch it on my own, on a small black and white television. I’m amazed I saw it, actually, because we didn’t have a television at the time. And I remember the Yetis – but the next but one story had the Yetis again, didn’t it? Not in the mountains, but in the tunnels’

It transpires, however, that my mum has been ‘revising’ by looking at the photos in Doctor Who – The Sixties.

‘I remember the Yetis didn’t have eyes, but in the photo they have eyes. They must have changed them for the one in the tunnels.

‘The Yetis were funny, they weren’t scary like the Daleks or the Cybermen. They were very fat, I remember that, they had big hips and these squat little legs. They couldn’t move very quickly, they sort of waddled. They were supposed to scare you, but they were more like gonks. They were cuddly.’

Cuddly? I asked my mum about them attacking people.

‘They didn’t really hurt people. They didn’t do much with them, they just stood around on mountains. Not looking very scary.’

‘I don’t remember any monks. There was this old ruined building, that might have been a monastery. I did like it, though, because it was one of the first ones they made outdoors. It was a nice-looking story. A lot of them were in corridors, but this was more of an adventure, they were running up and down the mountain, they weren’t just shut in somewhere.

‘I remember thinking it was going to be a history one, because they’d just done a future one and normally they’d do a history one after a future one.

‘And the atmosphere was friendlier. With the Cybermen there’d be scary music all the time, but this one didn’t have music.

‘I remember wondering why there wasn’t much snow. It was all rocks. It didn’t look like Tibet. But it was nice to be outdoors for a change.

‘I remember Patrick do-da wearing a big fur coat, because he looked like a Yeti! And in this one he ran about a bit more, because in some of them he just sat in the corner playing his flute. I don’t think he played his flute in this one.

‘Vicky wore a short skirt. I remember them saying that she felt a bit cold. She wasn’t wearing one of her long Victorian dresses.

‘She didn’t scream as much as some of the later ones. Oh, wait, in the picture she’s wearing trousers. I must have been thinking of Jamie, because he wore a kilt. Jamie was a Scotch bloke, a bit of a bumbling twit. Vicky had more sense.’

And finally, I asked my mum if she remembered the spectacular climax where the mountain explodes.

‘No. I remember, though, that the Yetis were remote controlled. They used joysticks.’