Thursday, October 31, 2013

Doctor Who: 1989

Episode 688: Ghost Light, part three
First broadcast: 7.35 pm, Wednesday 18 October 1989
<< back to 1988
The last shot
Ghost Light, part three
These days, it's not at all easy to get on to the set of Doctor Who and details of forthcoming stories are zealously guarded. But when the series was made at BBC Television Centre in London things were very different – as my chum Paul Condon explains.

'Above each of the studios at TVC there's the main gallery where the producer and director sit,' says Paul. 'But there's also a public viewing gallery, where people going on tours round the building can observe what's going on and BBC staff can see what other programmes are being recorded.'

Staff could also sign guests into the building – as happened with Paul in 1989. 'A friend of mine from the Merseyside local group [of Doctor Who fans] had just moved to London and got a job working at the BBC,' he says. This friend offered Paul – then aged 18 – the chance to watch Doctor Who being recorded. 'It was the first time I'd ever been to London without my family, and probably only the second or third time I'd been to London full stop. It was very exciting.'

Paul's friend wasn't the only one offering access to the viewing gallery, as Paul found when he got there. 'Over the course of the day, maybe a dozen people came in and out.' Who were they? 'I didn't really know the old guard of fandom, so I don't know. I didn't recognise them.'

There was no direct contact between the viewing gallery and the production team on the show – Paul and the others could watch proceedings in the studio but not get in anyone's way. 'But there's a sound feed so we could hear everything going on,' he says. 'There were monitors set up as well so we had the feed from the cameras.'

And what could Paul and the other fans see? 'I hope my memory of the day hasn't let me down on too many of the details. The viewing gallery is probably about 70 or 80 feet up from the floor, so it's a high vantage point. You get to see pretty much the entire studio floor beneath you, looking down into the sets, through the roofs of the rooms that have been laid out.'

Paul visited on 3 August 1989 and saw the final day of recording on Ghost Light – in which the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) takes his friend Ace (Sophie Aldred) to a haunted house in the 1880s.

Did the Victorian sets look impressive? 'Oh gosh yes. I couldn't believe that they'd managed to get that main staircase set in there. It looked incredible – and big. From our high angle, we couldn't get a very good view of most of it because the walls of the set were so high. There were a couple of scenes – stuff in Josiah's living room, pulling the drawer out with Inspector Mackenzie in it – that we couldn't see at all so we were relying on the monitors. But it looked absolutely lovely.'

What was the atmosphere like in the viewing gallery as they watched? 'Very hushed, very excited,' he says. 'People who'd been to recordings before were more nonchalant – you could tell the really excited ones were there for the first time, with wide-eyed saucer eyes. But there was a lot of excitement whenever we heard a new bit of dialogue or they moved to a new set or scene.'

So what did Paul see being recorded? 'Lots of the sequences in the main hall. Things like Mrs Grose opening and locking the doors, and welcoming people in – all that stuff from right at the beginning of part one.'

'But I think the day was really being used more for practical effects and stuff. There were a lot of retakes of Sharon Duce as Control jumping through the glass and escaping from that room. I also saw that brilliant sequence where Sophie has the flashback, with all the cockroaches and creepy- crawlies, and the police light on her while Mrs Pritchard looms up behind.'

'Actually, there was a fantastic scene that got cut, with Mrs Pritchard going after Ace and pulling out a machete from under her skirt! It looked almost Carry On – presumably that's why they cut it. But yeah, we saw lots from each of the episodes. They were bouncing round the story quite a lot.'

Did that make it difficult to follow the plot? 'I had very little idea what the hell was going on. But when I got back from it I wrote a little article for the Southport Doctor Who club, full of teasers and hints about what to expect, as if I did!'

How long was Paul there in the viewing gallery? 'To start, I probably had about an hour and a half. Then we went to the BBC Club, had a bite to eat and a drink, and went back for a bit more.'

He was there to see the shot of Mrs Pritchard and Gwendoline being turned to stone. 'There was a lot of stuff with cameras being reset at different angles so that the actual petrification effect was done pretty much live in camera with an electronic overlay over it.'

It was the last shot of the day, and of that year's Doctor Who. 'Some of the cast and crew went to the bar but we didn't hang around,' says Paul. 'We'd been there all afternoon, I'd seen what the BBC Club looked like and my mate wanted to go home. It was the end of a working day for him. I hoped I'd be able to come back again the next year and see more. But, well...'

As it turned out, Ghost Light wasn't merely the last Doctor Who story to be recorded in 1989 (though not the last to be broadcast). It was also the last television Doctor Who story to be made until 1996, the last to be made in the UK until 2004 and the last to be made at BBC Television Centre ever.

Paul didn't suspect the series was about to be axed as he left TV Centre that night. 'No one did at all at that point. There may have been whispers going around the production team but certainly as fans we had no idea.'

Doctor Who may have left TV Centre for the last time, but Paul ended up working there. 'Yes, for the last three years of its existence, when the Entertainment department was in there. I'd often take friends on tours round the building and show them places used in Doctor Who, like the entrance to the World Ecology Bureau [in The Seeds of Doom] that's really just a door into the studios. I'd give them a tour through all the public viewing galleries to see what was on. They'd usually gasp at how high up it is, and how big and empty those spaces are when there's nothing in them. It took me back to the first time I saw them.'

As Paul says, when he took me for a tour in late 2010, many of the studios stood empty and unused. Earlier this year, TV Centre closed for the last time. Paul sighs.

'My department moved out into one of the new buildings where The One Show is filmed. About two weeks before Television Centre closed, I took part in a staff recreation of the Roy Castle tap dancing routine. Ridiculous! But, you know... It was one of the last things filmed at TVC.'

'And then, a week before it closed, I was going into a meeting there. There was hardly anything left. But as I was coming in, there was a camera crew in the concrete doughnut. I thought, “What on earth are they filming now?” I looked over to the left, and there was Mark Gatiss with the biggest grin on his face. Bloody Doctor Who was filming! It was for An Adventure in Space and Time, with Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman and Carole Ann Ford, on the reactions as they arrived. That was the perfect goodbye to TVC for me. It was literally the last time I went into the building.'

Verity and Sydney at TVC, Feb 2013
From Planet Mondas, via BlogtorWho
Next episode: 1990

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Doctor Who: Faceache

In shops from today, issue #332 of Doctor Who Adventures includes “Faceache”, a new comic strip written by me, illustrated by the amazing John Ross and coloured by the remarkable Alan Craddock. Thanks to editor Natalie Barnes for permission to post it here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Modern Man: the director's cut

Modern Man from Sebastian Solberg on Vimeo.

Director Sebastian Solberg has posted a new cut of Modern Man, the short film I wrote earlier this year. Full credits are as follows:

Director / Producer – Sebastian Solberg (


Rupert – Sean Knopp (@SeanKnopp)
Rachel – Nicola Posener (@NicolaPosener)
Cavewoman - Ramanique Ahluwalia (@Ramanique)
Boy Genius – Nathan Bryon (@Nathan Bryon)

Director / Producer / Editor – Sebastian Solberg (@SebSolberg)
Writer – Simon Guerrier (@0tralala)
Producer– Jassa Ahluwalia (@OfficialJassa)
Executive Producer / Cinematographer – Dale McCready (@dalemccready)
Focus Puller - Juan Manuel Peña
Gaffer – James Humby
Camera Assistant – Oliver Watts
Production Designer – Joe Eason
Art Director – Katya Rogers (@KatyaHarriet)
First AD – James Cleave (@James_Cyprus)
Makeup Designer – Lulu Hall (@HallLulu)
Costume Designer - Georgia Lewis
Costume Assistant - Jasmine Grace Whiting
Stunt Co-ordinator – Dani Biernat (@Danistunts)
Sound Recordist – Miles Croft
Unit Photographer – Gary Eason
Unit Videographer – Vicky Harris
VFX’s Artist – Andrew O’Sullivan
VFX’s Artist – Dan Roberts
VFX’s Artist – James Morrissey
Composer – Lyndon Holland (@Lyndonholland)
Sound Design – David Sendall
Grade – Francois Kamffer
Credits Illustration - Jed Uy

Sarah Wright, Virginia Nelson, Sarah Ahluwalia, Ella Rogers, Neil Brand, Thomas Guerrier, Adrian Mackinder and Eddie Robson, Ros Little, Abbi Collins Kitroom Monkey and Take2.

You can follow Seb @SebSolberg on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. For any enquires about Modern Man, please contact him here:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blake's 7: Spy

I've written another Blake's 7 play for those splendid fellows at Big Finish:
Spy by Simon Guerrier
Starring Jan Chappell as Cally, Michael Keating as Vila and Gemma Whelan as Arta
Cally and Vila are undercover on the Federation-controlled world Cortol Four. It's a mission with an irresistible prize. And it's a mission that goes horribly wrong…
It's one of three hour-long stories in The Liberator Chronicles volume 7 out in February 2014 (but available to preorder now). The other two stories are by my mortal enemies Eddie Robson and James Swallow.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Doctor Who missing episodes - so what?

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror, part 4
One of the 106 missing episodes
At last, after months of rumour, the BBC have announced that an as yet undisclosed number of episodes of Doctor Who have been returned to the archive. So what? Why all the excitement? I've been asked this by a few people, so here's my best effort to explain.

Until this new find, there were 106 missing episodes of Doctor Who.

In the 50 years since Doctor Who began, 798 episodes have been broadcast, so just over 13% of all Doctor Who episodes were missing (798/106).

(The next episode, The Day of the Doctor, to be broadcast on 23 November, will be episode 799, the Christmas one after that episode 800).

Episode 798 was also the 102nd new episode since the series came back in 2005 – so there were more episodes missing than those starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith put together.

(Yes, since it came back the episodes have been longer than they were in the 1960s, but still).

The 106 missing episodes were all from the 1960s, all from the first and second Doctors' adventures. There were 253 episodes broadcast in the 1960s; just over 40% of them were missing (253/106).

  • A third of the first Doctor's episodes (44 of 134) were missing.
  • More than half of the second Doctor's episodes (62 of 119) were missing.

The second Doctor appeared in 21 stories (comprising various numbers of episodes); just six of them were complete – and all but one of those from his last year in the series.

All six episodes of his first story, The Power of the Daleks, were missing, as was the preceding episode - The Tenth Planet part four – in which the Doctor regenerated for the first time.

The last complete story found was the four-episode The Tomb of the Cybermen in 1992; in the 21 years since then, just four more episodes - each from a different story - have been found, plus various brief clips.

Also missing were the first appearance of regular character Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the death of companion Sara Kingdom, the débuts of companions Katarina, Dodo and Jamie, and the departures of companions Vicki, Steven, Polly, Ben and Victoria.

We know an awful lot about the making of Doctor Who – it may be the most painstakingly researched TV show ever. Clips, photographs, scripts and other documents have helped us gain a sense of what missing episodes might have been like. Novelisations, soundtracks and the memories of those who watched or worked on the missing episodes have suggested which ones were particularly good or bad. But nothing compares to seeing the episodes themselves. Of the last two episodes discovered, Galaxy Four: Airlock included a bold speech-to-camera and a flashback scene, while The Underwater Menace part 2 made me entirely reevaluate the story.

We don't yet know how many episodes, or which ones, have been found, or if they include complete stories. That's fuelling speculation and excitement in the run-up to the announcement, which seems due to take place sometime tomorrow afternoon.

So, it's all pretty thrilling. Oh, and here's me on the missing episode least likely to be found.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

When we first meet space thief Jean le Flambeur he's in prison, forced to play endless versions of the prisoner's dilemma against a fellow prisoner who turns out to be himself. Each time he fails to co-operate, the prison rewrites a bit of his memory and makes him play again, trying to force-evolve him into a more sociable citizen. It's a strange and brilliant idea, and just the start of the story.

The Quantum Thief (2010) creates an extraordinary future, at the heart of which is the wheeze that, thanks to technological advances, memories live on after bodies die. Bodies die exactly on schedule according to a person's allotted duration (sort of like in Logan's Run). The 'dead' souls are then transferred to other, less human bodies, to work as slaves for an allotted time, before returning to life. As a result, time is currency; you pay bills in seconds.

Hannu Rajaniemi constructs a rich and complex future. In fact, I sometimes found myself a bit lost. Science fiction often requires us to plunge into an environment we don't understand on the promise that we'll make more sense of it as the story goes on. We pick up clues and learn how things work, which can be very satisfying. But it can also be hard work.

Rajaniemi has a PhD in mathematical physics and this is unabashedly 'hard' sci-fi. There's lots on quantum states and encryption, and at times I couldn't quite keep up with the story. For this poor arts graduate, 'hard' sf might as well mean 'heavy-going', with the same kind of fascination for technology and hardware you get in war fiction, where it's all statistics of weapons and vehicles.

That's a shame because the story is, at heart, a classic heist - Jean using deft tricks and sleights of hand to keep one step ahead of the detective on his trail. But, like the detective, I often found myself baffled by what was going on, only realising later what Jean had managed to achieve. The effect was to distance me from the action; I didn't feel for the characters.

It doesn't help that the book is so humourless. And I'm not sure it quite delivers on its early promise. The plot ultimately hangs on some sci-fi horcruxes, and the last big battle falls rather flatly. In a world where few people ever really die, it's difficult to feel any great fear for people involved. Rajaniemi's future is constructed so robustly I didn't feel enough was at stake.