THE MIND PROBE

It's a Doctor Who blog.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Anthony Read as Script Editor

I've written articles about each Doctor Who script editor for Cultbox, but this one seems to have slipped through the net. As a result I'm publishing it here.

Anthony Read became the Script Editor of Doctor Who in the wake of Robert Holmes’ successful time on the show. After Philip Hinchcliffe was moved on from the producer role, Read inherited a situation that had the potential to unravel.

Image result for anthony read

New producer Graham Williams had been ordered to make the show more family friendly and humorous, despite his reservations, and it was his vision for the show that led the way. Williams asked Holmes to stay on as Script Editor for a few stories to help with the transition period, hoping he’d stay for longer but aware that he was unlikely to agree to a fourth full year on the show. So it proved, and Read was brought in for the final two stories of Season 15, doing some uncredited work on The Image of the Fendahl.

Williams disliked the way Doctor Who stories ‘came together quite coincidentally’, and wanted something linking them together rather than another random assortment. He originally considered bringing UNIT back, but this was vetoed by Bill Slater (the Head of Serials), and wasn’t able to organise his ‘Key to Time’ idea in time for Season 15.

Read’s first commission was from regular writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, hoping they’d be able to put together a script that didn’t require too much work to give him an easy way in to the role. This despite Baker and Martin regularly contributing first drafts that needed reining in. Read did make a decision that was to influence his and Williams’ time on the show by asking the writers to take inspiration from Classical myth.

It was his second commission that was to have a knock-on effect, however, as he asked David Weir - who he had worked with before - to contribute a season finale involving Gallifrey and a race of cat people. Despite the edict from BBC management to save money, the submitted script was even more ambitious than expected.

Soaring inflation rates had caused problems with the set construction for Underworld, and union disputes limited studio time for the following story. The initially tricky limitations imposed on the new team had been made all the more difficult to cope with.

Image result for underworld doctor who

Read and Williams, with advice from Robert Holmes, wrote The Invasion of Time in about five days. Williams did not write a proper departure for companion Leela in the hope that Louise Jameson would choose another year of elevating material she was clearly better than. She did not, hence her abrupt and ill-fitting exit.

Exactly the same situation would develop with Mary Tamm, although Williams did at least devise the character before Jameson left as a precautionary measure.

Season 15 is turbulent, a programme in transition from an established and popular identity that has been forced into finding a different one. Where it succeeded, though, is in moving far enough towards a new approach that the next series could be a lot more tonally consistent, though also ran into budgetary problems during its final story.

The impression of this period of Doctor Who is that it was very much led by Graham Williams, with Read responding to his ideas and adding comedy to the scripts. The Key to Time concept wasn’t fully developed when they started writing, hoping that a suitable conclusion would appear along the way. Read’s task was to find writers for this season as early as possible so the outline of the story could be confirmed.

Robert Holmes wrote the first story of the season, which remains one of the most sensible ideas in Doctor Who history. Read then commissioned Douglas Adams and David Fisher, asking the latter to step in when the fourth writer for the series pulled out. He did, however, commission Bob Baker and Dave Martin to write the series finale which, as you may have guessed, was far too ambitious for Doctor Who’s budget again and lacked the quality of the earlier stories in the season.

As it wouldn’t be the Graham Williams era without something else compounding this misfortune, Baker and Martin split up as a writing duo after completing this story, leaving Read to simplify The Armageddon Factor. Douglas Adams shadowed him as script editor during this process, and indeed co-wrote the final scene with Williams.

Image result for the armageddon factor

Anthony Read was absolutely sure that he was not staying with Doctor Who beyond Season 16, having been delighted to have the opportunity to work on the show but considering it a guest contract for a year. While following Williams’ lead, what he contributed was a stark lesson:

There weren’t enough writers out there who could do Doctor Who.

This has often been true, but what’s rescued the situation is a strong Producer and Script Editor team who stay with the show for more than two series together. Rewrites can be done, contingency plans made.

However, Read was never intending to stay longer than a year, and Williams was facing an increasingly demanding Tom Baker, inflation, strike action, the BBC demanding more and then less humour, and his own mistakes.

Read may have lacked foresight in asking for Kroll, the series biggest ever monster, and getting Baker and Martin to write key stories at a time when financial restraint was paramount, but he brought David Fisher into the fold and fought for Douglas Adams’ script when it was deemed too comedic. He was refreshing, in the same way an oasis is refreshing when there is still a significant amount of desert to cross.

All the show needed, though, was a talented and hardworking team who were on the same page and were willing to stick with the show.

How difficult could that be to find?

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Yes, This Again

I wrote an article for Cultbox about the reaction to The Talons of Weng-Chiang during Doctor Who on Twitch and the Doctor Who Magazine Time Team article.


Now, to my mind this is a pretty mild article (it was written before someone said 'I won't read the magazine if the editor is kept on', which apparently is all it takes to send DWM journalists feral) written by a middle aged, middle class white guy, who isn't very well known in fandom. This means that no one is likely to track me down to insult or abuse me, but it does still provoke ire in fans who resent being told their favourite thing is racist.

Guys, your favourite thing is racist from time to time. Deal with it.

At no point, though, do I say that this makes fans of it racist (although other things do - possibly referencing Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race instead of Avenue Q was a mistake). Instead I'm suggesting that being aware of the racism in Doctor Who is necessary but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the rest of it.

I've yet to see any of us PC killjoys saying you can't watch and enjoy Doctor Who, even Talons of Weng-Chiang (which, let us not forget, screwed over Graeme Williams by costing so much, is two episodes too long because someone forgets a bag, and ends with our quick-witted hero the Doctor aggressively throwing the villain into a cabinet, killing him - but does have high production values and some incredibly good dialogue).

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Targeting the Day of the Doctor

I loved it on first viewing.

Context is important, obviously. It had been built up to so much, I was staying with a group of friends and having a great weekend anyway. First viewings are more about gut feelings for me than critical analysis.

I recently listened to the audiobook of The Day of the Doctor.

[spoilers]

Image result for day of the doctor book

Nick Briggs is an excellent narrator. Steve Moffat is still an expert at deflating you with one joke too far, one joke too many, or just simply using the phrase ‘Down boy’ again.

There’s an ambition to the novelisation of The Day of the Doctor, using the change in medium to flesh out characters through accessing what’s been internalised. This is occasionally incredibly effective.

What it also does is provide proof of something I’ve suspected for a while: all of Steve Moffat’s characters are horny. Even the Curator. Have you read the interview with Tom Baker in Doctor Who Magazine where he mentions asking a dying Nicholas Courtney whether he was a breast or leg man? I feel like Moffat just transposed that moment into official continuity.

Possibly, after six years of Doctor Who that seemed targeted very much at me and people like me, I have had enough Moffat (It’s how the first half of Series 4 made me feel about the RTD era). This book started off exciting and moving but by the end I’d lost that feeling for a particularly fannish reason.

The Seventh Doctor and the Eighth Doctor.


Doctors are usually reactions against their predecessor. Eight’s enthusiasm, lack of cynicism and romantic air are in stark contrast to the sad clown whose spinning plates keep smashing. The Seventh Doctor tries to make the end justify the means, the Eighth Doctor rejects this notion.

However, the Eighth Doctor’s characterisation in this book is very much post-2005 Doctor. In the extra scenes we get with him he feels more like Tennant or Smith. This feels odd, not merely because of what’s gone before, but because the rest of the book is very clear that the War Doctor initially doesn’t recognise himself in his older-yet-more-childish incarnations.

So when we have a story built around the War Doctor killing everyone on Gallifrey, including the billions of children, it’s based around this idea of the character never indulging in consequentialism, that this is a significant departure.

Moffat addresses the character’s aspirations to an absolute morality by contrasting examples from the post-2005 series with the idea that the Doctor had previously committed double genocide. ‘I never would’ rings with a bitter regret because the character knows he has, and is trying to run as far away from being that person as possible. However, you could slot the Seventh Doctor into the Time War easily. He could just as easily be the figure the later Doctors are thinking of when they proclaim their heroism.

The War Doctor functions as this cut off point between old and new series in this story, echoing the BBC English of the original run and providing a reason for his future selves to act in a noticeably more flippant manner. This isn’t subjective interpretation, it’s in the text. The reason that Nine through Twelve have taken Troughton’s foolish front and made that a permanent feature is because being serious reminds them of the Time War.

As a result it jars when the first thing we see the Eighth Doctor do is whooping and cheering as he goes to rescue Cass. It feels like the act of a post-War Doctor, muddying the cut off point the book later establishes.

As the book progresses, the weight on the idea of the War Doctor being atypical increases. The Seventh Doctor’s head is cocked to one side, and he’s gently questioning. Soon his consonants will harden, and the cracks will start to appear.

See the source image

You can argue that this point of continuity isn’t something that needs to be answered in a novel that barely features the Seventh Doctor, but it also goes out of its way to fit the Cushing Doctor into continuity and address the notion of the Doctor’s heroism as an ideal versus the reality of it (and, being a Moffat story and an anniversary celebration, you can guess which one wins and why it’s okay for this to happen).

The Seventh Doctor’s behaviour approaching the War Doctor’s can’t be mentioned for this to work.

Day of the Doctor needs to iron out this blip in his character to make sense, because the War Doctor can’t be this aberration when he was actively trying to destroy oppressive races two incarnations ago. It just makes it seem like the Doctor has mood whiplash. Maybe he does (Ohilia’s revelation regarding the ingredients of the potion is Moffat at his best). The Eighth reacts against the Seventh’s ways and means, only to find himself in a situation where he needs to be None More Seventh. That works as a headcanon.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Realising the Time War

In the latest Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, Scott Gray writes the Twelfth Doctor describing an incident in the Time War.

I've previously mentioned that I've found Big Finish's and BBC Books attempts at portraying the time war to be dissatisfying based on their lack of imagination, that they all tell the same story and at no point does it feel distinctive from non-Time-War Doctor Who.

Gray, on the other hand, writes Doctor Who like he owns it. Also, luckily for him, his medium is comics, which are vastly more suited to the temporal chaos implied by Russell T. Davies' brief descriptions of the war on television. You can simply show an image which tells and implies the story, rather than have to write a paragraph of exposition. You don't have the budgetary limitations of television, and so outlandish visuals are more easily achievable. Thus, Part Four of The Clockwise War is, for me, the most satisfying depiction of the Time War partly for these reasons.

Another - arguably more important - factor is the characterisation and context. Having the events narrated by a future Doctor, using a younger version of the War Doctor than Big Finish were ever able to do, and placing a long established comics character in the companion role allow Gray to bypass the standard 'Old War Doctor meets young female who dies and is sad about war' plot that appeared to have been mandatory previously.

Firstly, the young War Doctor is uncharted territory for licensed fan-fiction. Gray has free reign to characterise him as he wants, and uses this to present a Doctor who is gleeful in the face of war. It isn't til the end we see Gray write something more typical in terms of War Doctor angst, but prior to this we see a Doctor not dissimilar to the one we see in Tooth and Claw - still recognisably the Doctor, but emotionally distant and glib in the face of death.

Secondly, and possibly more importantly: there are absolutely no Daleks in this comic.

Whether that's because of licensing or simply because Terry Nation's estate prohibited it, it makes the story more interesting by virtue of forcing upon us something new. Gray also resists the temptation to realise one of the names RTD came up with for the screen, something that had previously always been tepidly done, and devises entirely new creatures.

The Time Lords are also notable by their absence beyond a group of soldiers - there are no dirty tricks or amoral gambits here, just fighting on a front line. True, Gray brings in the Sisterhood of Karn to tick off a fan-pleasing box, but they were there at the beginning of this incarnation, so it's not such a contortion to fit them in.

Overall it's a take on the Time War that drives home the War Doctor's differences, manages to hint at the chaos of temporal combat without actually involving any time travel, and doesn't outstay its welcome. I was very impressed by it, but the main thing this comic has confirmed for me is this:

I really never want to see another Time War story.

Part of this is simply that it's a story that's impossible to realise in a way that does justice to the idea; a brief interlude in the Time War is about as far as you can dip your toe in. Conceptually, it's not actually meant to be a story we visit on an ongoing basis, and so a spin-off series has to tweak the Time War into something that resembles a story, despite its very essence fighting against this method of depiction.

Mainly, though, it's that I don't watch Doctor Who for the horrors of war. The Time War necessitates a version of the Doctor who not only allows these and is culpable, but can revel in them. Seeing this done reasonably well for the first time is enough to demonstrate to me that it's definitely not what I want from Doctor Who.

The Caves of Androzani is brilliant. Genesis of the Daleks is brilliant. However, if you tried to make Doctor Who like those stories every week, it wouldn't be Doctor Who anymore. Things that aren't Doctor Who aren't intrinsically bad, of course, but this is why delving into New Earth is a much better idea than delving into the Time War will ever be.





Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Twitch

This whole Twitch thing has turned out pretty well, so I thought I'd write about it.

Then I wrote about it.

Then Cultbox published it.


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Big Finish, Small Return

A new Doctor Who range standard release by Big Finish costs between £12.99 and £14.99. Box sets start at £20. To keep up to date with the range of audioplays featuring previous Doctors and companions is an expensive business.


Big Finish's audience is therefore self-selecting. You have to have disposable income and enough spare time to listen to the stories before we take into account the niche within a niche that is they occupy within Doctor Who fandom.


I have never been able to afford to regularly buy Big Finish plays, and probably won’t be able to for at least a decade. I would wait for good reviews, friends and word of mouth to convince me to buy the occasional story if it came down in price.


Recently, I've been trying to play catch up with their boxsets, listening to Dark Eyes and the War Doctor series. I'd also heard the Sixth Doctor's regeneration story last year in a friend’s car.


Today, I saw the announcement that two actors who played Cybermen in the Eighties had played Cybermen for a Big Finish play, and an enthusiastic tweet in response that read '@bigfinish have been producing so much innovative and exciting work lately ... but this is something special. It feels like an era of 1980s television has returned!'


I'd already decided that Big Finish's plays weren't for me anymore, but if there had been any lingering doubts that would have confirmed it.


If work can be regarded as innovative for bringing back some actors who used to do the job thirty years ago, then clearly Attack of the Cybermen is a lot more innovative than we gave it credit for.


Big Finish occasionally do something stunning. Spare Parts, The Chimes of Midnight, and Jubilee are rightly acclaimed to this day. Protect & Survive and A Death in the Family are - I thought - more recent successes, but they were released in 2012 and 2010.


This was when Big Finish had a restricted playset, and they had to focus on what they could do with limited resources. Now they have a licence to explore the old and new series' continuity and with this comes irresistible temptation.


If John Hurt is interested in working with you, then you can see why it's tempting to do a Time War series. Unfortunately reading and listening to Time War stories confirms that it’s a terrible idea. Russell T. Davies' version allowed so much interpretation in the mind's eye of the viewer, that the Time War was something unimaginable that didn’t always follow a conventional narrative.


It has to because Big Finish have a roster of writers working hard on the increasing number of ranges. Their output is considerable. Their writers spread thin. The Time War's greatest enemy is a writer with multiple deadlines who doesn't have time to make this exposition seem natural.


Also it would really help if the first three War Doctor stories (including George Mann's book) didn't all follow the same pattern:


  • The War Doctor – who it turns out is just the Doctor behaving as normal but OMG he's in a war – meets a young woman who fulfils the companion role.
  • The Time Lords are up to something.
  • Underwhelming fanwank (the debate about whether this is a tautology will have to happen some other time).
  • The young woman dies at the end because of war and the War Doctor is upset because of war and it transpires that war is actually bad.


I'm not confident about never seeing this story again. If we have to hear a conventional narrative depicting events that shouldn’t have one, it would be lovely if it wasn’t the same one over and over again.


However, as you can see from the Cybermen quote above, Big Finish have an audience who are being entertained, and it's clear to me that what I want from Doctor Who is not the same as what they want.


Also, I have been trying not to read/listen to books by straight cis white men (for reasons mentioned here), and so if I want to listen to Big Finish then I've got a limited choice. Looking at the monthly main range releases from 2014 – 2018, five stories have female authors. Five out of seventy-eight. It's about as good as on television, really, with a similarly white writing pool.


Another major problem, is that because he's the Executive Producer, it's very unlikely that Nick Briggs will be stopped from writing scripts ever again. This is a shame, because at best he's the Eric Saward to Terry Nation's Robert Holmes.


There’s a paragraph in El Sandifer’s article on Time Heist - a story my wife could not remember even as I reiterated the plot to her - which has a delightfully pithy description courtesy of Jack Graham:


"There’s a pleasantly devastating phrase that I think Jack originated—visual Big Finish—that applies to stories like this. And it’s easy to imagine Big Finish making many of the storytelling decisions here. Psi and Saibra, in particular, are crap in almost the exact way Big Finish usually is. But for the most part, this is the rare story that probably would have been improved if it had come out of Big Finish. They can at least be bothered to do a basic Chekov’s Gun setup, and they are mercifully minimalist in their use of lighting gels. And more to the point, as a Big Finish release it could have just been politely forgotten in the way that Fiesta of the Damned, Moonflesh, and City of Spires are."


And it’s entirely true that Big Finish produce disposable and forgettable stories, which is a given in any long running series, but on telly this doesn’t work out at a £12 loss.


The War Doctor Boxsets, Dark Eyes and the Sixth Doctor regeneration boxset all felt like Time Heist - TV episodes that are mid-season filler. They pass the time, they have their ups and downs, and once they’re finished you don’t really remember them. The difference with Big Finish is that there can be a lot of continuity to pick up along the way, so they feel like your first attempt at baking scones - they’re not bad but they are far too dense to actually enjoy.


However, these are Big Finish’s boxsets, their events and blockbusters. They pull focus. They’re £20 each when they’re not on sale.


As I said, Big Finish’s audience is self-selecting based on price. They’re also self-selecting based on content.


This is Doctor Who for a specific fan audience, and a valid one to target, who are happy enough seeing these concepts realised in the first place, who are excited by the mere presence of David Banks in a new Cyberman story, as if the character of Cyberleader is one with masses of untapped potential.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

A History of Doctor Who through its Script Editors

I am writing a series of articles for Cultbox, attempting to put together a history of Doctor Who by writing about its Story/Script Editors.
Image result for donald tosh doctor who
'No, I don't recognise me either.'
I pitched this series under the title of 'Standing on the Shoulder of Bryants', which I mention in the first article and mention again here because frankly it's my greatest achievement.

I'll add the links to each article as they go up.

  1. David Whitaker
  2. Dennis Spooner
  3. Donald Tosh
  4. Gerry Davis
  5. Peter Bryant
  6. Victor Pemberton
  7. Derrick Sherwin
  8. Terrance Dicks
  9. Robert Holmes
  10. Anthony Read
  11. Douglas Adams
  12. Christopher H. Bidmead
  13. Anthony Root
  14. Eric Saward
  15. Andrew Cartmel
  16. Russell T. Davies
  17. Steve Moffat