Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

"By classical times the Theseus legend ... had so fabulous a garnish that it has sometimes been dismissed as pure fairy-tale, or, after Frazer, as religious myth. This briskness was not shared by those who had observed the remarkable durability of Greek tradition; and the rationalists had their first setback when Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the Palace of Knossos, with its labyrinthine complexity, eponymous sacred axes, numerous representations of youths and girls performing the Bull Dance, and seal-carvings of the bull-headed Minotaur. The most fantastic-seeming part of the story having thus been linked to fact, it becomes tempting to guess where else a fairy-tale gloss may have disguised human actualities."
Mary Renault, "Author's note", The King Must Die (1958 [1986]), p. 373.
I first read The King Must Die when I was 11 or 12. I was loaned a copy by my grandmother (who died when I was 14), I think because I'd been enthusing about the Cretan Chronicles role-playing books which were popular in my last year at primary school.

At the time, I was thrilled by the tale of high adventure in a richly drawn ancient world. I especially loved the brilliant conceit: using archaeological evidence to tell the "real" story behind the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. It clearly influenced me when I pulled the same trick (and about the same moment in history) for my Doctor Who book The Slitheen Excursion, and I'm writing something now that's along the same lines but set in a different period. (Far better than my lowly efforts, it's the trick pulled in Philip Reeve's amazing Here Lies Arthur.)

The book is extraordinary in its rich, convincing portrait of the ancient world - where different tribes and groups of people are distinctly drawn. I was also impressed by how much Renault confronted the sexual mores of the time - Theseus does not partake in but does not mind the frequent moments of gay sex. For a bestselling book written in the 1950s, that seemed especially extraordinary - though I've now read up a bit more about Renault and her work.

Renault's author's note at the end of the novel spells out  over two and a half pages her logical methods in making the legend "real". It's great that she performs the trick, then tells us how it's done and invites us to reread the legend (provided after the author's note) to judge how she's done. A select bibliography of learned tomes further adds to the chutzpah: she's challenging us to fault her. I also wonder how much these scholarly credentials dare us to question all the gay bits. I shall add David Sweetman's biography to my reading list in the hope of finding out.

And yet, reading the book again, I think there's a fundamental flaw: the palace of Knossos is destroyed by chance - the eruption of Kalliste is a force majeure. Renault works into the story that this is the Gods' response to Theseus' actions, but if the whole book is about undercutting myth with reality, this doesn't quite ring true. The defeat of the Minoans would have happened anyway, whatever our hero might have done.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Doctor Who: 1986

After episode 653 (The Trial of a Time Lord, part fourteen)
18 December 1986
<< back to 1985
The Doctor on trial again
Tomorrow's World, 18 December 1986
On 6 December 1986, the Doctor was found not-guilty by a jury of his peers in the final - and fourteenth - episode of The Trial of a Time Lord. Twelve days later he faced a new challenge on BBC One, the Tomorrow's World Christmas quiz.

Broadcast live in prime time, it pitted the Doctor, astronomer Heather Couper and Neil Cossons, then director of the Science Museum, against the studio audience, trying to guess the purpose of a bunch of new gadgets. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube but for a flavour of the tone, here's how presenter Howard Stableford introduced our hero:
The nominated captain of our expert panel is Colin Baker, Doctor Who. Good of you to find the right time to join us.

It's nice to be back again because I was on the 50,000th edition when the TARDIS - the prototype - was shown.

Was I still on the show?

No you were pensioned off.

Replaced, was I?
This achingly BBC banter feels a bit odd when we know that Colin Baker was in the midst of being replaced. He'd been told that his contract as Doctor Who was not to be renewed some six weeks earlier on 29 October, between the broadcasts of parts eight and nine of Trial of a Time Lord. That news seems to have been reported in the press in early December, just before the quiz was broadcast (though I've not found a source).

Doctor Who's producer still hoped Baker would appear in one more story to hand over to his successor: four days after the Tomorrow's World quiz, he commissioned that story and the writers,
"were asked to write their scripts for the Sixth Doctor and include a climactic regeneration sequence ... Any hope of Colin Baker appearing in Strange Matter was lost on January 6th, 1987, when the first installment of an interview with the actor appeared in The Sun. In it, Baker expressed regret at his dismissal from Doctor Who, and spoke scathingly of BBC1 Controller Michael Grade."
The Tomorrow's World quiz was Colin's last appearance as the "current" Doctor.

Colin wasn't sacked but the decision not to renew his contract seems like a judgment on his time in the series. The show was in trouble - it had been taken off the air for 18 months in 1985, and then Trial was not brilliantly received by the public - but that was hardly his fault. As the star, he was just the most visible, recognisible person in the frame.

How much control or choice does a Doctor have over the show? We know David Tennant said no to a story set inside JK Rowling's head. Patrick Troughton battled the production team about the burden of the production schedule and got shorter episodes in his final season. Jon Pertwee had the original actress cast as Sarah Jane Smith replaced. In each case, that Doctor had been in the role for some years which gave their opinions more weight.

But generally, interviews with Doctors suggest that while they might have set the tone in the rehearsal rooms and while filming, and put cast and crew at ease, they didn't have the time or clout to affect the programme being made. They weren't involved in commissioning or editing scripts, or the tone or direction of the series. Perhaps their biggest say over their time in the progamme is what they wore as the Doctor; Colin didn't even have that. Few - the Second, Fifth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors - got to choose when they left the series.

That's not to say they were victims. The Doctors all clearly worked very hard to make the most of the material. Like most actors, they'd query their characters motives, reactions and dialogue. They might have rephrased lines, added jokes or asked what the emphasis should have been, or what their character knew or was thinking at a particular moment. Some incredible moments in the series are the result of an actor playing against the apparent meaning of the lines, or playing them in an unexpected way.

So I'm not arguing that actors should necessarily have more say and involvement in the material they appear in. It's not a bad thing in principle, just not always practical - or desired. Rather, I'm interested in the trust that has to exist between the lead actor(s) and those running a show. I've worked on productions where actors haven't liked or understood what we were making, but threw themselves into it anyway (usually after I'd listened to their doubts and tried to answer their questions). The key thing is the right kind of open, creative environment where people can ask questions and suggest improvements, but whoever's in charge has the final say and keeps everything on course.

That clearly wasn't happening at the end of Colin's time in the show: the producer and script-editor - the "showrunners" at the time - weren't talking, the latter left after an argument and the final episode he wrote was dumped in favour of something else. In the confusion, Colin was left asking fundamental questions about his final story - how much of what we see on screen is a lie, how much has the Doctor turned evil and is his companion really dead? It's bad enough that he had to ask, but I think the answers given in each case were the ones needing least effort to work in, not that made a better story.

All he could do - all any actor could do - was show willing and make the best of what he was handed. He did, and lost his job.

Doctor Who continued with a new actor in the lead, a new script-editor behind the scenes and a new, lighter touch. I've heard people wonder how the series might have been if Colin had stayed on. His work for Big Finish has been extraordinary, reinventing the Sixth Doctor, making him quite brilliant. But if he'd stayed in the role back then?

I think we can tell. Watch him in the Tomorrow's World quiz: smart, benign, trading terrible jokes with good humour. Making the best of it anyway.

Next episode: 1987

Friday, July 19, 2013

Doctor Who: 1985

Episode 630: Vengeance on Varos, part two
First broadcast: 5.20 pm, Saturday 26 January 1985
<< back to 1984

The Doctor rescues Peri - doesn't he?
Vengeance on Varos, part two
I used to be terrified of Doctor Who - or at least some of it. As I've said already, it was always (or always seemed) a serious, adult show full of things I didn't understand and content unsuitable for an impressionable small boy.

In 1982, after Kinda - and the Mara lurking in Tegan's dreams - I had nightmares. The following year, there were more, the result of the Mara returning in Snakedance and David Collings' chilling performance in Mawdryn Undead.

I didn't tell anyone: I feared if my parents knew they wouldn't let me watch the programme. And it wasn't that every story led to nightmares. Monsters, generally, didn't scare me - I've never been very squeamish. The death of Adric or the Black Guardian's control of Turlough were thrilling but not scary.

When I got through Season 21 (in 1984) without a sleepless night, I thought I'd achieved something, that I was growing up and out of nightmares. So it was a bit of a shock when the following year Vengeance on Varos utterly terrified me.

The whole story is deliciously horrid. Sil is a brilliantly grotesque creation, giggling as he orders yet more outlandish tortures. And yet the thing that really got in my head is the briefest moment.

Peri and Areta are subjected to an experimental process to amuse the viewing public. As Quillam is all too eager to explain:
The nuclear bombardment beams release all the power latent in the recipient's mind. If the changelings see themselves as unworthy, they can become serpentine or reptilian. [Peri], for instance, must wish to fly away from trouble as would a bird.
It's the word "unworthy" that really got me: as if transforming was the victim's fault. If you're not good enough, the machine finds your secret fears and then uses them to change what you look like.

But it wasn't the process that turned Peri into a bird that bothered me so much as the Doctor coming to her rescue. We see her change back to her human self and the Doctor rushes over:
I am the Doctor and you are Peri. Perpugilliam Brown.


It's a question of re-imprinting their identities, of establishing again who they are.

Wake up, Areta. Come on!

Can you walk, Peri? Come on, try.

I thought I could fly.
There's a hint that she's not back to normal, that for all it looks as if the process has been reversed, inside her head she's still a bird. That's what terrified me and led to nightmares - because the Doctor's too busy trying to escape to notice.

It was only when the story came out on video in 1993 that I saw it again and realised the moment that so terrified me, that I'd kept in my head for years, didn't really happen. Peri doesn't say "I can fly", only that she had thought that she could. She's fine, if confused and exhausted. There is no permanent damage.

I'd taken something in the story and spun it out into something of my own, as if just to scare myself further. The nightmares were a creative act. Once I realised that, I could see it was also true of the other stories that scared me. I'd invented new stories for the Mara, appearing in places I knew in real life such as my school and the fields where we walked our dog. With Mawdryn Undead, there's a brief time when Nyssa and Tegan think Mawdryn might be a regenerated Doctor and I fixed on the idea he had regenerated, in pain, on his own - something that's barely suggested in the episode.

I'm fascinated by how people respond to and take ownership of Doctor Who - telling their own stories, making films and documentaries, dressing up, or looking for work in the industry. David Tennant became an actor because of his love for Doctor Who. Though my favourite version of this is that Dr Marek Kukula pursued an academic career in astrophysics because he wanted to be Leela.

Oh, and that thing of Peri being transformed but the Doctor not noticing? In 2002 I used that as the basis for my first ever professionally published bit of fiction, a Doctor Who short story called "The Switching".

Next episode: 1986

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Modern Man, a short film what I wrote

I've written a new short film, Modern Man. Watch it, like it, share it with everyone you ever met - and use the hashtag #VMShortsvote.

But how did it all come about?

I can still taste the cocktails. In November last year, I attended the glamorous Virgin Media Shorts awards 2012, where my film, The Plotters, was shortlisted but did not quite win. There was a lot of free fizz and then cocktails, and I danced with – or at – Hannah from S Club 7. It's a tough old life, showbiz.

Six months later, I had an email from Sebastian Solberg, director of photography on The Plotters. He wanted to enter the 2013 VMS competition, this time as a director, and had an idea for a short. Would I be willing to write it? I thought, nobly, of free fizz and terrible dancing and said yes.

It helped that Seb's idea was a good one, full of comedy potential and easy to shoot all in one room. He came to visit me the next day, we sat out in the garden in the sunshine and I pitched how I'd ruin his idea. 

Looking back at the one-paragraph brief he sent me, the finished film sticks pretty closely to his original idea. That first meeting, I made three major suggestions:

1. The title, Modern Man.

 2. That it should have no dialogue. I'd met Neil Brand a few weeks before and we'd talked about silent comedy (he suggested that Mr Tumble on Cbeebies owed more to Chaplin than Oliver Hardy.) That had got me thinking about writing a film without dialogue. Also, the first cut of The Plotters had been much too long – the VMS competition has a maximum run time of just 2 minutes 20 seconds – and we'd struggled to cut it down, losing lots of great jokes and performances. A silent comedy would allow for more easy fiddling.

3. That it should have an impressive establishing shot, like the CGI 17th-century London we'd had to open The Plotters. It's important to grab the audience's attention from the start and an expensive-looking shot helps the film to stand out. I'd also been talking to my brother about the famous cut between a prehistoric bone and a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, we'd steal that cut and begin our film in the year 100,000 BC.

Seb didn't hate my ideas and later that day he went location scouting and found somewhere five minutes' walk from his home. He emailed me pictures the next day. “I've attached the original version and the final version (which as a bit of movie magic applied to me.)”

Putney, 2013
Location scouting for Modern Man

Putney, 100,00 BC
CGI test for Modern Man
Suddenly it was all looking doable and real, and there was even a filming date (22 June, which I couldn't do as I'd be at a family thing). I sent Seb the first draft of the script later that evening. He sent lots of notes back – on character, on beats in the script, on the whole thing. He also wanted “Clive” to be “Rupert”. I sent a second draft to him the next day.

I also sent that second draft to my brother Thomas Guerrier and actor/writer/warlock Adrian Mackinder – with whom I cowrote The Plotters – and Eddie Robson, whose Welcome to our Village, Please Invade Carefully is so annoyingly good. They provided good notes, honing jokes and emphasis.

On 13 June, Seb sent me emails with designs for one of the props and some notes on the main action sequence following a meeting with the film's stunt co-ordinator. Yes, I had to read that again, too: the film's stunt co-ordinator. Lorks.

The next day Seb was rehearsing with Romy Ahluwalia, one of our actresses. Emails started to come thick and fast, with confirmed names of cast and crew. The messages stopped coming from Seb and came from production manager Katya Rogers and producer Jassa Ahluwalia. It was all fast gathering pace. On 16 June I responded to lots of comments with a new version of the script. We swapped ideas for the lead actor, and on 18 June, Katya sent round a complete list of cast and crew – with Sean Knopp playing Rupert. Excitingly, he was in Doctor Who.

On 20 June, I trekked across south London to a house in Festing Road in Putney where the film would be shot two days later. I went through into the kitchen where three young children were playing. No, wait, it was Jassa, Katya and Seb and I am just quite old. It was a baking hot day and I made the mistake of asking for a mug of tea, so sweated handsomely through the deliberations. Seb went through each shot with director of photography Dale McCready. Excitingly, he'd worked on Doctor Who.

Meanwhile, I chatted to Jassa and Katya and stunt co-ordinator Dani Biernat. Excitingly... well, guess what show she might have worked on.

Once Seb was finished with Dale, we read through the script one last time and picked over some final details. I headed home feeling good, passing an important cultural landmark just a few doors down from our location.
Simon Guerrier @0tralala 20 Jun
This afternoon I walked past Mr Benn's house. The costume shop at the end of the road has gone. #brokenbritain
Mr Benn @therealmrbenn 20 Jun
@0tralala And as if by magic, you get tweet from Mr Benn to say hello! Festing Road? There was a fancy dress shop on Lacey Road, long gone!
I delivered a final, locked script that evening and found myself redundant.

A flurry of emails followed – the callsheet with a starting time of 08:00, shooting script, unit list, movement order, general risk assessment, details of which bits of public transport would not be working. None of it was for me. While the cast and crew made the film, I spent my Saturday on a bouncy castle.

I got to see a rough cut of the short last week, but am thrilled to see the final thing. Well done to Seb and the team. It looks *amazing*. And bloody hell, a mammoth!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Doctor Who: 1984

Episode 614: Resurrection of the Daleks, part two
First broadcast: 6.50 pm, Wednesday 15 February 1984
<< back to 1983

The Doctor and Tegan part company
Resurrection of the Daleks, part two
When Tegan - one of the longest-serving companions in Doctor Who - finally leaves the TARDIS, she says it's because something's changed.
A lot of good people have died today. I think I'm sick of it.

You think I wanted it this way?

No. It's just that I don't think I can go on.

You want to stay on Earth.

My Aunt Vanessa said, when I became an air stewardess, if you stop enjoying it, give it up.


It's stopped being fun, Doctor.
Two things strike me about this. First, something was changing in Doctor Who at the time. After the fun of The Five Doctors, the new season began with Warriors from the Deep, where the Doctor is unable to stop a massacre. The next story, The Awakening, is fun but there's something unusually bleak about the human colony in Frontios, the last of humanity dwindling away on some distant backwater. And then there's the bloodbath of Resurrection - by some margin the highest bodycount of any Doctor Who story.

I've read quite a few theories about what's going on: that the Fifth Doctor was a feminised version of our hero, or it's the influence of Blake's 7, or the production team (and audience) were more keen on grislier stories (perhaps after the perceived success of Earthshock). The trend certainly continues after the Fifth Doctor's gone; the Sixth Doctor sometimes seen peripheral to the grotesque events on screen.

But the Doctor wasn't alone. In 1986, Alan Moore wrote an introduction to a grisly version of another children's hero:
"Whatever changes may have been wrought in the comics themselves, the image of Batman most permanently fixed in the mind of the of the general populace is that of Adam West delivering outrageously straight-faced camp dialogue while walking up a wall thanks to the benefit of stupendous special effects and a camera turned on its side."
Alan Moore, "The Mark of Batman", introduction to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, p. ii.
Moore doesn't mention Doctor Who, but cites criticism of other men - Tarzan, Alan Quartermain and James Bond - whose simplistic heroism no longer seemed quite to satisfy. He makes his own case for why that might be:
"The world about us has changed at and ever-accelerating pace. So have we. With the increase in media coverage and information technology, we see more of the world, comprehend its workings a little more clearly, and as a result our perception of ourselves and the society surrounding us has been modified. Consequently, we begin to make different demands upon the art and culture that is meant to reflect the constantly shifting landscape we find ourselves in. We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations.
We demand new heroes."
Ibid., pp. i-ii.
I don't think that's right. Quartermain first appeared in 1885, so why should he suddenly be found wanting 100 years later? Yes, I know, there'd been criticism of figures like this before then, but in the mid 80s there seems to have been a major shift in how we related to heroes.

I wonder how much it was history: how much did Vietnam and Watergate create anxieties about the traditional hero? (I'm thinking less of Rambo here as The A-Team). And how much was there also a crisis going on in the grand ideological narratives of the 20th Century once the East started cosying up to the West? The James Bond films were well ahead of the game in dealing with detente, but for all Bond is recast and redefined with a harder edge in The Living Daylights (1987), there's a sense that real-world politics are leaving him behind...

But there's another possible reason. Note that all these heroes are white men. So is this discomfort with traditional heroism the result of decades of agitation about sexual and racial politics slowing filtering through into the mainstream?

Adam West isn't necessarily the public's fixed image of Batman. We're now used to - indeed, expect - a psychologically complex Bond and Batman and Doctor, tortured by self-doubt and age and the loss of loved ones.

And if that's the case, how much was Bond and the Doctor both losing their broad appeal in the late 1980s less the fault of particular production decisions as a sign of the times?

Secondly, hang on: Tegan, of all the companions, who spent three years in Doctor Who complaining, is the one to say it's stopped being fun?

Next episode: 1985

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Don Quixote by Cervantes/Davis

A page from Don Quixote vol 2
Cervantes/Davis (2013)
As a belated birthday present, I bought myself Don Quixote volume 2, adapted by Rob Davis from the 1615 novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Like the first volume, it's the funny, strange and moving tale of a deluded old man who thinks he's a knight, and the idiot "squire" who follows after him in the hope the delusions prove true. They traipse the countryside looking for chances to be brave and virtuous and generally get beaten up for their trouble.

In this second volume, they must contend with people who've read the first one, as well as characters set on revenge and those just taking the piss. It's a sadder story - as much because of those who take advantage of Quixote as because of his failing health. And yet there are still plenty of laughs.

I've been fascinated by Quixote since an A-level art trip to see lots of paintings in London. We'd done the National Gallery and what's now Tate Britain and were hitting sensory overload as we reached the Courtauld. And there, not on our syllabus, was a portrait by Daumier that's haunted me ever since.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Honoré Daumier c. 1870
Courtauld Gallery, London
I can think of no higher praise for Rob's adaptation than that its reminiscent of Daumier, the same simple colours and skeletal silhouettes, the same skinny bleakness. He packs character and feeling into simple, quick sketches - Rob's own How to adapt Don Quixote into a graphic novel in seven easy steps gives a fascinating, detailed account of his working methods and the alarming speed at which he had to write it.

I know Rob's work from the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and the Horrible Histories books, and met him very briefly when he signed my copy of Nelson. But as I read the book - and his post on adapting it - I found I had nagging questions. It's a huge undertaking and he did it alone. Quixote has defeated adapters before: Orson Welles failed to complete his movie version; it's eluded Terry Gilliam twice.

(Cervantes also suffered: he based Quixote on his own failures, having been a quartermaster to the doomed Spanish Armada, he was jailed for confiscating grain belonging to the church and then spent 10 years in debtors' prison. After the first volume of Don Quixote was published in 1604, there were bootleg copies and a a fake sequel. He work that into his own volume 2, but died soon after its publication.)

There are inevitable allusions to be drawn: how quixotic is adapting Quixote? Rob very kindly answered my questions:

How much did volume 2 depend on sales / the success of volume 1? 
Rob Davis: The contract was for two books so volume 2 was never dependent on sales. The thinking behind splitting the book back into its original form gave me the chance to get a book out each year, gave the the project greater shelf life and crucially made real the gap between the two halves of the story.

How much is the style influenced by previous depictions of Quixote? I was thinking especially of Daumier.
RD: Very little if I'm honest. I used previous interpretations for reference, but stylistically it's more about my ideas for drawing comics.

You mention in your seven easy steps piece that you used different editions of Quixote, but how much research did you do into Cervantes and the book?
RD: Hard to quantify. I usually make the point that my adaptation is my reading of the book and most of my referencing came from reading different translations or abridged versions. I read a few accounts of Cervantes' life, but the character of Cervantes in my books is really the authorial character he creates in his narration.

Cervantes seems to have ended up mad and penniless after writing the book(s). How's it going for you? :) 
RD: Yep, I'm flat broke and berserk now. Between the two volumes I split from my wife, left my home and children, lost several months in the bottom of a whisky bottle and ran up insurmountable debts. It was a mad book to adapt and therefore my own sanity must be questionable. But I take some pride from the fact that I finished it (unlike Gilliam and Welles). Glad you enjoyed the book, knowing that people are getting something from it humbles me and makes me happy.

Visit Rob's website: Dinlos and Skilldos

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Plotters - the shooting script

By popular demand (well, Dawn Christoffersen on Twitter asked), here's the shooting script for our short film The Plotters - which got shortlisted in the 2012 Virgin Media Shorts competition, and which you can watch here:

(Full cast and crew for The Plotters at IMDB.)

ETA: and here's the first rough cut of the film:

The Plotters - First Cut from Thomas Guerrier on Vimeo.


by Adrian Mackinder and Simon Guerrier 

Based on an idea by 
Adrian Mackinder and Hannah George 

(c) Adrian Mackinder and Simon Guerrier 2012

1 EXT. LONDON, 1605 - NIGHT 

Heroic CGI. The old Palace of Westminster in the background. CAPTION: London, November 1605.


GUY FAWKES - in beard, hat with buckle, cape - hurries to the door, checks he’s not been followed, goes in. 


GUY joins a group of other PLOTTERS – all in beards, hats with buckles, capes – at a table. 

Gentlemen. We are in accord. Thirtysix barrels of gunpowder now sit beneath the House of Lords. When the heretic king is there tomorrow, Robert lights the powder and foom! We ignite a new world! 

The men clank tankards. GUY turns to THOMAS WINTOUR. 

Robert, did you want to say a few words? 

Er, Guy... I’m Thomas. He’s Robert. 


Oh, er, yes. Robert. Our explosives expert.

What? I’m Robert Catesby. You mean that Robert.

He points at ROBERT WINTOUR. GUY embarrassed.

Oh yes, we’ve got two Roberts.

Er, three.

Who are you?

Robert Keyes. Hi.

And you’re the explosives expert?

Lord no. Horrible stuff, gun powder. Go off in your face! Very nasty.

GUY struggling to make sense of this.

So we’ve got three Roberts.

It is a bit confusing. Doesn’t help that we all look a bit alike. 

The plotters all glance at one another. He’s right!

I could pop home, get another hat.

You don’t have another hat.

We just need to know which one’s the explosives expert.

The three ROBERTS all point at one another.

(sigh) All we want is someone to light the powder. (BEAT) And obviously run away quick. Surely You’re not scared? 

The plotters all gruffly shake their heads. Of course not. 

I’d do it. But they know me from Devereux’s rebellion. I’d never slip past the guards.

Bad knee, can’t run. It would be suicide. And that’s a mortal sin.

Gunpowder makes me sneeze. 

Well, then. Someone else. Thomas? Are you man enough?


Sorry, which Thomas?


Thomas Bates, Thomas Wintour or Thomas Percy? 

Oh, now really. We’ve got three Roberts and three Thomases?

And two Johns. I’d do it, but I’m driving the getaway carriage. Sorry. 

The plotters bicker. 

Is there anyone who doesn’t have the same name as anyone else? 

There’s Ambrose. And Everard. 

The men snigger.

Shut up! Anyway, isn’t Ambrose a girl’s name? 

More sniggering. AMBROSE is rather burly.

I’m known from Devereux’s rebellion, too. Why can’t Robert do it? 

Which Robert? 

They all start bickering again.

(fighting for calm) It only needs one of you. Really! I’ll do it myself if I have to!

They all fall silent, stare at him.

Fine. If you want a job doing properly... 



GUY is chained up, looking miserable. POLICEMEN – in beards, hats with buckles, capes – come in, carrying instruments of torture. An INTERROGATER stands by.

He’s given us a description of the other conspirators.

He hands the POLICEMEN a paper. It shows a crude drawing of a man in a beard, hat with buckle.

I see. Did he tell you their names? 

The INTERROGATOR turns the page over. There’s a list: Robert, Robert, Robert, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, John, John, Ambrose, Everard. 

(weak) It’s a funny sort of coincidence, but really... 

We’ll get the truth somehow. Fetch the thumb screws. 


Monday, July 08, 2013

Doctor Who: 1983

Episode 602: The Five Doctors
First broadcast: 10.30 pm on Wednesday 23 November 1983 (US); 7.20 pm on Friday 25 November 1983 (UK)
<< back to 1982

The Raston warrior robot decapitates a Cyberman -
for Doctor Who's birthday.
The Five Doctors
A lot of our response to Doctor Who is informed as much by how we first see it - who we're with at the time, the mood we (and they) are in, the stuff going on in our lives - as the programme itself. A wise chum told me he'd realised this about a recent season: his least favourite episodes were all the ones he'd watched on his own.

So a lot of the warm, cosy love I have for The Five Doctors is personal and from context. That first evening it was shown was a big event. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it with my siblings, and they drew the curtains and turned off the lights to make the experience more like a cinema. It was the last Doctor Who story we all watched together as it went out.

When I watch it again now, I still feel a thrill of memory for that long-ago evening, that particular, personal circumstance. But it's not just that. As I've grown up, become a writer and tried typing my own Doctor Who stories, I am ever more in awe of the script.

First, consider the brief given to the poor writer. Imagine you're the one that script editor Eric Saward came to.

You have to write a 90-minute TV movie extravaganza, with five leading actors all playing the main hero - so they get 18 minutes each. They all need to drive the plot, be heroic and have the best lines, and you'll need to consider the potential clash of egos on set. Oh, and the fact that one of those actors is dead.

In addition, the story should feature lots of old monsters and companions. The production team can't confirm availability of some of those companions until very late in the day, but each Doctor will need pairing up with a companion from their time on the show. And lastly, it needs to thrill a broad, general audience tuning in for the special event, as well attempting to satisfy fans. (PS the script editor especially likes the Cybermen.)

Bloody hell, that's a lot to cram in - once you've assembled the cast there's hardly room for a story. In fact, it seems to have defeated Robert Holmes, generally regarded as one of Doctor Who's best writers - if not the best. "The brief was too heavy," Saward later admitted of Holmes' involvement. "He didn't think it would work."

Saward is speaking on Terrance Dicks: Fact & Fiction, a 2005 DVD extra on Horror of Fang Rock. The documentary covers Terrance's time on Doctor Who but especially his ability to step in when things went wrong. When two stories collapsed in 1969, he co-wrote the 10-episode The War Games and saw the Second Doctor off in grand style. He then script-edited the next five years of the show - all the Third Doctor's adventures - taking a series facing cancellation and returning it to rude health. In 1977, when the BBC objected to his Doctor-Who-meets-vampires story (because it would look like it was mocking their big adaptation of Count Dracula), he quickly knocked out one of my favourite stories, Horror of Fang Rock. Basically, he's a good man in a crisis.

Terrance himself is modest about his contribution. He says on the Fact & Fiction documentary that he's often asked:
"'Were you aware you were making classic television?' Our main plan was not to have have to show the test card."
He's rightly proud of this unshowy professionalism and recalls a moment from his time as script-editor. A director called from the rehearsal hall to say there was some problem with the scripts. Terrance called back and spoke to the director's PA.
"I said, 'Tell him to ring me when he's free. And tell him not to worry because whatever it is I will fix it.' ... That just came out and I thought that sounds bloody conceited. But I thought after five years, having hit most of the problems on Doctor Who, I'm fairly confident that I can fix it."
When given the brief for The Five Doctors, Terrance's solution was simple, effective and brilliant. He treats the problem as a sort of game, and makes that game the plot. Just as he has to gather Doctors, companions and old enemies, so does the villain in the story.

I've been discussing this with my chum Jim Smith, who says that "Terrance talked once about a game where you have to take objects out of box and extemporise a story around them. The story does that, with all ingredients brought out like the prestige in a magic trick. He also (perhaps unconsciously) works that image into the story, with Borusa's gloved hands pulling the figurines of the characters out of the box and putting them on the board."

But - without disagreeing with Jim - it's far more clever than that simple game supposes. The Doctors all have their own plots to follow and don't meet up until the final scenes (and a single day's filming) which provides a neat structure for the story but also avoided potential spats between the leading men. There are even separate entrances to the Dark Tower so the Doctors don't bump into one another early.

More from Jim: "I love how the Third Doctor recounts an establishment view of Rassilon, the Dark Times and so on ('old Rassilon put a stop to it') while the Second, a more anarchic and less establishment figure, regales the Brigadier with conspiracy theories of how Rassilon invented and played the game before he banned it and how he may still be alive inside his own Tomb. At least some of which turn out to be true."

The Five Doctors is packed with brilliant moments: the Doctors being chased by black triangles; the fizzing insides of a Dalek; the Doctor running away from his own people at the end. There are nice continuity fixes, too: the fact that a Time Lord can be given a new regenerative cycle when his first one is used up; the Third Doctor meeting the Cybermen (the only Doctor at that point not to have done so). And so much of the dialogue sparkles: I particularly love “I am the Master – and your loyal servant”.

Jim says: "I love that the Master takes his mission seriously. When he rages at the end that 'I came here to help you Doctor, a little unwillingly but I came. My offers were scorned! My help refused!' he's actually telling the truth and no one - not even the audience - believes him."

"Then," Jim goes on, "there's Terrance's use of imagery from Browning's Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came - see from versus XXXI. This seems like a stretch until you remember Fang Rock's indebtedness to The Ballad of Flannen Isle."

Terrance dodges round one of the Doctors being dead by having an actor stand in for William Hartnell - but also, tastefully, starts the story with a perfectly chosen clip of the man himself. Midway into the story, the replacement First Doctor is paired up with the current Doctor which again works structurally as well as practically (there's less of a potential clash with a for-one-night-only Doctor). All the Doctors have great moments of wit, intelligence and courage and get some brilliant lines.

Then, after a draft of the script had been completed, one of the Doctors decided not to be involved. That should have spelt disaster but Terrance fixes things deftly, again using archive footage to fill the gap and also reworking the other Doctors' roles. Watching it that first time, I wished Tom Baker had been in it more but never suspected he'd not been there at all.

If the Doctors get the best bits, the companions are less well served, just tagging along in his wake, asking questions that prod the plot along. I wonder how much that's due to them still being swapped round at the last minute, or to the constraints of squeezing in so many people.

There's an effort to mark out their characters but it's all a bit sketched in and glib. Susan sprains her ankle as if that's something she always did (it isn't; she did it once in The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Jim: "Which was, of course, one of only two First Doctor stories Dicks had novelised. Did he flick through it for research? Or just remember novelising that moment?"

Poor old Turlough fares worst, getting very little to do: he draws a picture, worries in the TARDIS then has to stand still not talking. Jim: "I like his 'Die, it seems' gag. And 'Big, isn't it?' about the bomb. Black humour is key to Turlough, I think. So we get that if nothing else."

There's no mention at all of Kamelion, the robot companion introduced in the previous story.

Other things niggle. It's a shame that the Eye of Orion is clearly the same location as the Death Zone (though that's not an issue with the script). A thrilling scene where the Third Doctor rescued Sarah from the Autons was changed to a cheaper one where she falls down a steep slope; a good fix on paper but the way its shot doesn't make it look very perilous (and again not an issue with the script).

Jim drew my attention to one odd script thing in the scene at UNIT HQ: the sergeant doesn't know who the Doctor is and won't let him in, whereas Colonel Crichton tried to have the Doctor invited to the reunion and failed. So he certainly knows of the Doctor. When the Doctor gets into the office, the colonel dismisses the sergeant and lets the Doctor stay because either he knows who this Doctor is by sight (they've never met, but he may have seen pictures or whatever) or he accepts Lethbridge-Stewart's recognition of him as reason enough. Then at the end of the scene the colonel says:
What the blazers is going on? Who was that strange little man?

The Doctor?

Which, as Jim said, completely reverses their positions/knowledge. On the DVD commentary at this point, Terrance says the joke wasn't his but Saward's. And it's not in Terrance's novelisation of the story, either.

Whatever the case in that scene, Saward clearly helped improve the story overall. He suggested that it was too obvious if the villain turned out to be the Master. He also thought the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane needed to face one more obstacle before reaching the Dark Tower. To answer that, Terrance came up with the one new monster in the story, in a scene that typifies what makes The Five Doctors so brilliant.

The Raston warrior robot is a budget-conscious creation - a non-speaking actor in a simple costume. Its sensors are primed to detect any movement, on which it fires arrows and bladed discs. Again, it's making a game of the problem: the Doctor and Sarah Jane end up playing Blind Man's Bluff.
Freeze, Sarah Jane. If you move, we're dead.
And then a troop of Cybermen arrive...

Cor. No wonder this scene was most often used to promote the story. Simple, cheap and thrilling, it is perfect Doctor Who.

Next episode: 1984