Sixth Doctor action figure, with DVD

Vengeance on Varos

Television loves a drama about itself. In fact it is almost a surprise it took 22 years for Doctor Who to set a story in a TV studio. Vengeance on Varos cleverly uses the audience’s awareness of both the language of television, and the lively debate about the effects of screen violence, which has rumbled on since popular entertainment was first projected on to a white sheet. Back in 1985, the whole “video nasty” controversy was still fresh in minds of many UK viewers. The early burgeoning video rental market had seen gory exploitation fare like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Driller Killer and SS Experimentation Camp suddenly leaving the relatively controlled environment of late-night cinemas and into the living rooms of family homes. Not only that, but objectors pointed out that unlike broadcast television, video recorders had the facility to pause, slow-down and replay disturbing scenes. Doctor Who had courted controversy in the past with some of its frights, and this legacy is also re-examined in this Special Edition DVD. For some fans, Vengeance on Varos is the story that crossed the line in the depiction of violence, by explicitly involving the Doctor as a perpetrator. More on his acid bath murders later.

The TARDIS is stranded in space. Only by obtaining the rare mineral Zeiton 7 can the Doctor hope to travel again. He and Peri make an emergency landing on Varos, an ex-prison planet turned brutal mining colony. Here the Governor and his officers control the population through violent repression and lurid reality television, filming what happens in the “Punishment Dome”. They’ve even started selling packaged programmes of the disturbing footage to other worlds. Somehow the Doctor must escape the many death-traps of the Dome, and outwit the loathsome Sil, an intergalactic business shark.

Vengeance on Varos was the first Colin Baker story to be released on DVD. For the time the extras seemed quite generous, most of them based around the unedited studio footage. But the presentation of the programme on DVD has become a lot more sophisticated since then, as has the methods of converting the video tape into digital. Hence this two-disc special edition with improved picture and sound, plus three new featurettes.

The core of the story is a satirical look, both at violence on television and the debate over its effects on the audience, and modern democracy. Its vision of an emotionally deadened audience, watching a constant diet of violence and death 24 hours a day maybe exaggerated but there are some prophetic observations. About the way news is reported and the cynical producers who shape the material to create stories. Or the risk that continual public referendums via TV voting, could result in meaningless democratic choice and poor government. The real complexities of the planet’s problems are reduced to platitudes and soundbites from the Governor when he asks the people for their yes or no vote. Yes, watching this story in June 2019, its hard for a UK viewer not to think about Brexit and the way the referendum has failed to achieve anything so far, except increasing our cynicism in politics.
“Well he makes me sick!” complains Arak to his wife Etta. “He’s the worst governor we’ve had since…well since…”
“Since the last one?” she finishes mockingly.
This bickering couple who watch the story unfold on the video screen in their dingy room, are obvious avatars for the both the the populace of Varos, and the real life television audience at home. But their commentary gives the rest of the story more reality and a lot of their dialogue is entertainingly meta. “I like that one,” coos Etta at the Doctor, “the one with the funny clothes.”

Television is accused of cheapening human life, reducing traumatic experiences to shallow entertainment. But ultimately it is the evil regime and economic poverty that is driving the misery, so it can be argued that the exploitative television is a symptom rather than the cause. The most important quality of this story is that it both entertains and asks serious questions to get the audience thinking. It also features one of my favourite cliffhangers, a clever post-modern moment where the Doctor’s apparent death is being directed onscreen and the episode ends with the line, “And cut it…now!” If only the end titles had crashed in on the Governor’s words, rather than the television static and Sil’s maniacal laughter, and would have been in my top ten of greatest moments in the show.
Writer Philip Martin had some form with this kind of fourth wall breaking. The second season of his Seventies crime drama Gangsters became increasingly self-aware of its nature as a television show, memorably ending with an actress walking off-set in indignation, as the picture pulled back to reveal the studio set.

Sil is the most memorable character, thanks to a marvellous performance by disabled actor Nabil Shaban and a good costume. This greedy squirming amphibian with a gurgling laugh and pompous manner is the highlight of every scene he appears in. A ruthless, cowardly businessman obsessed with profit over lives, he is an obvious comment of commercial greed but Shaban gives the character a powerful, funny personality, with some nice alien touches, particularly his gurgling alien laugh. He was popular enough to be brought back in the following season and has made a further appearance on audio. This year will see him return in his very own Reeltime spinoff video – Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor.

Martin Jarvis is excellent too as the haunted,resigned Governor, a leader who is literally tortured by every negative vote. There’s an interesting complexity about him. Although he mostly presented as a sympathetic character, by contrast with Sil and the duplicitous Security Chief, the fact that he originally came up with the idea of selling footage of the torture as entertainment and his willingness to use executions to achieve his aims means that his hands are far from clean. There is certainly no guarantee when the Doctor leaves that the colony is in good hands. Colin Baker is in his early days here and his Doctor is still pretty bombastic and unsympathetic. Colin Baker’s idea that his Doctor would mellow over time proved to be bad choice in my opinion, since his character too often ended up alienating viewers rather than intriguing them. Worse still, in an already violent story, the Doctor seems to come under the influence of the Dome. He fights with two guards who have recently carried his unconscious body into a disposal room. In the ensuring struggle, one guard falls into a vat of acid, and then accidentally drags his compatriot in. Watching them dissolve the Doctor remarks with a smirk, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you!” This hardly seems heroic, especially this Schwarzenegger-esque quip at the end. as they thrash and disappear under the bubbles. A completely wrong choice by actor, writer and director there.

Nicola Bryant is meanwhile fine as Peri, although she is pretty much a victim for much of the story. But her natural emphatic reactions to the wrongness of the world around her as a welcome balance in a story so steeped in amoral attitudes.

As I mentioned above, there are three new extras on this release.  Nice or Nasty hosted by Matthew Sweet is a cheery making-of doc that concentrates on the writers for a change, namely Philip Martin and script editor Eric Saward. It looks into the controversy of the story’s violence, as well as the budget problems. The Idiot’s Lantern sees Channel 4 News presenter Samira Ahmed looking at all the instances where television itself has appeared within Doctor Who. It’s a good succinct feature and its striking just how much both televisions and the language of the medium are threaded into the show. Characters frequently watch television (or video monitors). Events are often reported on by TV presenters to give them more reality. Occasionally characters even comment with self-awareness on the show’s own cliches. “Not even the sonic screwdriver will me get out of this one!” announces a worried Fourth Doctor to the camera in Invasion of Time.

Tomorrow’s Times looks at the press coverage of Colin Baker’s tenure. After an initial burst of positivity with his casting and arrival, sadly most of it was pretty critical. This was the time of the 18-month ‘hiatus’ when Michael Grade nearly cancelled the show and it was here that the show seemed to stop being a popular mainstream hit and the narrative became that of a struggling cult series.

It’s an actor’s commentary for this story: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban discuss their memories in a laid back manner. The original extras, based on the raw studio recordings are all here. Also archive clips of Colin Baker’s first interviews in the role, on Saturday Superstore and Breakfast Time which are quite charming. There is also a deleted French and Saunders sketch in which they play actors in monster costumes who keep spoiling a take, but it is tin-eared and unfunny. In addition there are the traditional high quality photo gallery and information subtitles.

Despite its relatively low budget qualities, such as the guard’s amusingly slow moving electric buggy which is in-advisedly used in an action scene, this story’s ambition and performances make it possibly my favourite of Colin Baker’s short era in Doctor Who.

Montage of actors

Westlake Films Remastered Part 2

Sometimes you look back at old work and marvel where you found the time and the energy to make so much material. Recently my friend Kevin Hiley has been remastering the best of Westlake Films and putting them on Youtube. Upscaling them to HD and correcting a few flaws, although resisting the urge for any George Lucas style revisionism, I’m glad to say.

Two men. One deserted station. In a place that might as well be the middle of nowhere.
A comedy about the sheer hell of other people.

The best ideas are often simple ones. This comedy short was written by John and Kevin, and edited and directed by Kevin Hiley. It was great fun to make, even if it was a long day, I can’t remember much waiting about. Most of the story is conveyed like a silent movie, with a nice escalation of events. It really felt like an isolated location and for most of the day we completely alone and uninterrupted. The scene where the two rivals start walking, then break into a race to the other platform was a spontaneous moment between myself and Nigel. For a while this film was one of our most viewed videos. We were only slightly disappointed to discover that many of the viewers were railway enthusiasts clicking on it to see a now defunct station on the Settle and Carlise line, rather than watch our creativity.

Only George “Shuttle” Kipper stands between Earth and the fiendish Emperor Vorkon in this thrilling tribute to the Saturday matinee serials of yesteryear.

A personal favourite of mine, because it’s one those films where everything clicked and cast and crew were on top of their game. It’s also good to see a few more fresh faces in the cast. I loved the old Saturday Matinee serial which BBC1 used to show in the summer holidays. Especially the first Flash Gordon serial which has a glorious free for all adventure vibe that is reflected in the way the people of Mongo look like they just told the extras to go into the costume store and grab whatever they fancied, a look we recreated in Emperor Vorkon’s court in a local church’s multi-function room. It was great fun to return to that world of sputtering firework rocketships, BIG acting, and cartoonish fight scenes. I play three roles in this episode, Eddie the reporter, the cave monster, and a courtier in a feather headress and drooping mustache. I also provided the *spoiler* for the cliffhanger, a scene which has always got a big laugh wherever we’ve shown it. I’m particularly pleased with how the clunky robot turned out, a real credit to John, Rebecca and Kevin’s crafting.

A young radio astronomer discovers an incredible secret behind our universe, and faces a terrible choice.

A great little short film that packs a lot into twelve minutes. I was not involved directly with this film, which Kevin Hiley produced whilst studying an NVQ Level 3 in Media Production, together with Rail Rage. John Isles, the lead in this film, would later undertake the same course himself. It holds up pretty well, an entry into that genre of mysterious organisations working behind the scenes to protect our world. Nigel Peever is at his sonorous best as the enigmatic stranger. Jodrell Bank is always a great location to film at.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was one of the bestselling authors of his day and a pioneer of the historical romance and science fiction genres. Filmed at Knebworth Castle and elsewhere, this is a short biographical novel about his life and works.

For many years I have had a hilarious book on my shelf called It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: 101 Funniest Opening Sentences from the Worst Novels Never Written. It is an amusing collection of deliberately bad opening sentences from imaginary novels and contained a potted biography of the man who first wrote those infamous words. There was something about Lord Bulwer-Lytton that stayed with me and inspired me to write this script and present it. Man of Words is another example of something I had planned as a simple talking heads documentary, turning into a much more elaborate and entertaining film thanks to my friends. One of our most polished films, alongside Deconstruction, it involved getting permission to film at Knebworth, together with dramatic reconstructions filmed at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens (near Doncaster), Mawdesley, Lancashire, and some follow-up scenes at Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds. We were blessed with a sunny day for the filming and our major complication was that the grounds were also hosting a lavish wedding, which we had to film around. Once again Lisa Hiley’s large collection of period costumes was a lifesaver, and they, together with Kevin’s skill as a graphic designer and cameraman, gave this production a gloss which belied its tiny budget (mostly taken up with travel and catering costs). Once again Alistair Lock lent us his dulcet tones reading the excerpts. At the time we felt that if the right people saw it it could open a possible professional direction for Westlake. That did not happen but it is still a film I’m proud of.

A man goes to visit an uncannily accurate fortune teller.

A great example of a one day film shoot producing a very polished little film. I can’t remember why I was not involved in this one, probably a double-booked weekend as usual. My only contribution was buying the tarot cards, which in those pre-Amazon days necessitated quite a search around town to find a suitable set in time for the filming.

The history of the Space Race, from the Wright Brothers to the Space Shuttle.

Something of a follow-up to Man of Words in spirit, Carl Bowler pursued one of his own fascinations in this short documentary. My main memory of this was the sunny day’s filming at Jodrell Bank, and our race back to Manchester to see Rik Mayall on stage as The New Statesman that night.

Carl Bowler explains why an Australian film about competitive ballroom dancing means so much to him.

Lately we have been thinking of creating more film appreciation vlogs like this one, a genre the internet has opened up in the last decade. I’m a big fan of BBC2 ‘s Moviedrome series and love the idea of creating introductions similar to those which Alex Cox and Mark Cousins used to deliver. As it is Carl , Rebecca and Kevin have been the people to actually get some made. We started with Scott Pilgrim and followed up with Strictly Ballroom. I am hoping to film on for The Keep this year. Carl does an excellent job of selling this cult Australian comedy drama.

If you have enjoyed any of these films, there are a host of other productions to be found over at Westlake Film’s Youtube Channel. Hope you enjoy watching these movies and stay tuned to the blog for more news about future projects. All the best for now.

Auton, K9, cosplay Doctor, Cybermen

Westlake Films Remastered Part 1

My friends and my experiences writing, acting and gophering have been a big part of my creative life. Looking back we have created quite a varied body of work on a micro-budget. Now Kevin Hiley has decided to give our ten generally accepted best productions the remaster treatment. HD upscaling, picture and sound fixes, and in some places new FX and music. If you have never seen any of these films, there has never been a better time.
With ten of our films getting producer/director Kevin Hiley’s love and attention, I’ve decided to break this article into two posts so that I can properly write about them.

A distant human mining colony on a moon-sized asteroid is devasted by a Cyberman attack. Chinon fears he is the only man left. Soon his thoughts turn from survival to revenge.
A gripping homage to the monochrome years of Doctor Who.

Still our most ambitious film. Not only did we travel to Scotland for several days, filming in the TV studio at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Kelvingrove Park, and then the beaches of Argyll, we hired transport, employed actors and even a make-up artist to create our protagonist’s wounds. Took me years to pay off that credit card, but I don’t regret it because the film is a gem. I still think it is unlike any other Doctor Who fan film I have seen, with the harsh monochrome noir lighting and its nihilistic atmosphere. I remember we were surprised ourselves when we watch the first assembled cut at how tough it was. Shuttle Saves the World and Auton Diaries 2 are funnier, perhaps more accessible, Man of Words is glossier, but Deconstruction remain our most complete film experience.

Some of the cast and crew at RSAMD back in 2001.

It was a film where we pushed ourselves and overcame quite a few unexpected obstacles. For example the battle scenes had been planned out but we realised we were fast running out of time and had not got nearly enough footage. Between Kevin, Tim, John and myself we came up with the idea of throwing out the storyboard and going handheld and improvising close quarter, fast cut fight scenes. The test footage of the fight between myself and John in a hotel room was sight to watch in itself.
The script was based on a short story by Tim Reid published initially on a fan forum called Timelord. We used to write chain stories, called Random Fictions. Many of them didn’t work but the ones that took off were often alot of fun and I learnt a lot about writing from the ones I contributed too. Maybe I’ll post the best to this blog at a later date?

What happened to old Doctor Who monsters when the original television dried up in 1989? Spinoff videos are one answer but every actor knows that this business has as many downs as it has ups. A comedy about the rich inner life of one thesping Auton.

For a little while I seemed to be Bill Bagg’s go to writer for the wackier ideas. This short was made as an extra for the Auton 3 DVD. Auton 2 had already featured a funny skit written by Paul Ebbs in which an Auton with the personality of a fruity old English actor described his resting years. After discussing several ideas, John Isles and I decided that the best follow-up was a film about the return of Doctor Who and how it affected this monster.
Initially I had envisioned a much simpler set-up of the Auton being interviewed in his garden, with a few photos. But John and Kevin pushed me to be much more adventurous, so we ended up with a foundry (filmed at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry), a theatre, and a recreation of the famous high street invasion from Spearhead from Space. I have made no secret of the fact I think this film is a lot more successful than Do You Have a License to Save This Planet? as comedy, because I kept much more control over it.
Playing the Auton was quite a gruelling experience. As other actors who have donned monster costumes on film over the years have commented, there was little visibility in the mask, and under the bright lights in the theatre I nearly collapsed from the heat at one point. But there is also a freedom in being an anonymous masked alien in public places, (Huddersfield mainly) and I felt free to mess about and react to be public ‘in character’. Mind you, I do remember taking my mask off at one point, only to hear a couple sat nearby jokingly cry out “Uhgh! What a hideous monster!”

Meet Dave Smalls and his robot partner K9. Together they fight crime! And sometimes commit it too. This week, Dave received a mysterious phone call and stumbles into a fast food conspiracy that not even a dog with an IQ of 900 may be able to digest.

The opening titles of K9 and Company are some of the worst ever seen on a BBC programme. When I was given a homemade K9 prop by a family friend, my initial intention was simply recreate them with a chavvy idiot detective replacing the polished, capable Sarah Jane Smith. Once again my friends convinced me to go further and write a whole mini-episode. The ideas came pretty fast, and luckily I had met a talented Manchester actor called Charles Allen-Wall, who was more than happy to be the bloke. Equally happily Alistair Lock agreed to provide his fabulous K9 impression to my words. It was also fun to welcome back Nigel Peever as the villain. Looking back I’m impressed we got it all filmed in a relatively quick time, using our regular locations of the Black Bull pub, my house, and a local Bolton church. The best of our films usually have a clear central idea and that’s exactly what this one has. One of the few films we have made to be mentioned in a commercial publication- Doctor Who Magazine.

We’ll make a Third Doctor out of you yet! Welcome to a very special school for training the very best Intergalactic Dandies.

Tom Baker may be the most recognisable Doctor, but I don’t think there is another incarnation with quite so many clear foibles to impersonate and gently rib as the Jon Pertwee regeneration.
As we have grown older and busier, the opportunities to make films have decreased. And when we do get together, it has to be scripts we can pull off in a day. This is one of the best examples of our later work, just lots of fun and silliness as we improvised ideas around the theme of the Third Doctor’s era. It was Jonathan Miles’ idea initially. Jonathan is a keen cosplayer and provided most of the costumes, whilst I brought the old Auton gear out of wardrobe for one more airing.
I’m particularly fond of Carl Bowler’s Worzel Gummidge character and the classroom scene where he’s just a bit out of sync with the rest of the students.

These are the Doctor Who films that Westlake Films has revived. Next time I’ll take a look at our varied output away from the TARDIS.

Vintage film poster

Talking Pictures May Podcast

It’s Hammer (Films) time! The latest episode of Adam Roche’s podcast, dedicated to UK vintage film and television channel Talking Pictures is out now at your favourite podcasting source. Search for the Talking Pictures TV Podcast. I’m delighted to say I have made the cut again with a quick piece on 1961’s Terror of the Tongs, an interesting Hammer Film which is more of a period adventure than a horror film, despite the way it was advertised. Find out what Christopher Lee thought of playing Chung Ko, an Asian villain not a million miles away from Dr Fu Manchu, at least visually.

In addition there are plenty of other entertaining reviews including Bedazzled, The Camp on Blood Island and some reminiscences from Robert Powell about his late Eighties adventure series Hannay. The channel continues to unearth half-forgotten gems. At the moment I am catching up on Callan, a melancholy spy series from the Sixties and Seventies that still feels realistic, mature, and features two remarkable performances from Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter. 3rd June sees the arrival of the fondly remembered children’s supernatural anthology Shadows too. Looking forward to rediscovering that.
For more on Talking Pictures, read my earlier article. Stay tuned!

Promoting Ladies in Lavender – and myself

One of the aims of this blog is to be a one stop shop for my work. It’s been busy lately, both with completing the first year of my Digital Technology Solutions Apprenticeship and supporting the last three productions of the Bolton Little Theatre season. But this does give me creative outlets: two new videos and my first self-created webpage in a long time.

Ladies in Lavender, based on the popular film written by Charles Dance and starring Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. Adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna. I decided to go for a simple slideshow style trailer due to having limited time. Finding a good young male violinist photo was surprisingly hard. I shall also be designing the sound and operating the sound desk for that week 11th to 18th May.
Spring and Port Wine, the classic Northern comedy drama by Bill Naughton, which became a beloved Sixties Bolton movie starring James Mason and Susan George. Again a simple slideshow format, using vintage newspaper photos, a location from the film, and music from Youtube’s stock library. The music was originally intended to be “Times They Are A-Changin'” but that is not allowable due to copyright. I’m compiling the sounds for this final play of the season, but happily I am getting help on the sound desk.

Please visit Bolton Little Theatre’s website for more information about our excellent productions. You can also see more of my trailers for local am dram groups by browsing my Youtube channel.

Back in the late Nineties’ I was keen to join in the internet revolution and make my own webpage. I self-taught myself HTML and created a small website to promote my Fine Line Doctor Who audios, uploaded to the personal webspace I received as part of my NTL subscription. It was great fun but once my audio production days faded, my skills faded. One of my favourite parts of my current degree has been Web Development, and its been good to learn HTML, CSS and Javascript in an organised way, as well as updating my conception of how today’s web works.

As part of this I had to create a personal profile page as an assignment and you can take a look at it. The webspace comes courtesy of the degree course, but it is owned by me, rather than the university, and might well host a more interesting creative site in the coming months. Watch this space.

Friends’ fantasies: White Sand 3 and Quantum Assassin

There’s two new books set in exciting fantasy worlds coming out soon and the link between them is that they’re written by friends of mine. Talented comrades who have been rather more productive than me on the fiction front of late.

First up is the third and final volume of Brandon Sanderson’s White Sand graphic series, as adapted by the multi-gifted Rik Hoskin. The first two volumes have been a big hit for Dynamite Comics and Mr Sanderson himself has been delighted with Rik’s revision of his unpublished manuscript, set in what would become his Cosmere Universe. Rik was recently interviewed about the third volume, its new artist Fritz Casas, and what it has been like collaborating on a huge project like this. There’s also a bit of news for fans of Death Lands too. You can read the interview right here. I am biased but I thought it was a fascinating read.

White Sand 3 is released in hardback on 25th June and is available for pre-order at all good bookshops now.

Meanwhile Michael Langley and my erstwhile BBV collaborator Paul Ebbs are launching a new trilogy of fantasy/SF novels under the moniker
Quantum Assassin , starting with Chain World. To quote Paul:

“It’s a rollicking SF\Fantasy adventure with big swords, big spaceships, big guns and a load of big dumb objects which meet at the intersection of Science and Magic.”

Looking at the blurb on Amazon we learn more: “Between two impossible worlds, three heroes must rise. Shryke the warrior, Galdar the curate and Barl the trainee Assassin. Each on a mission that will bring them into collision, not only with each other, but also with an enemy of immense power, the God-Queen.
Chainworld: sixteen planet-sized links with terraformed inner surfaces. Sixteen wholly different environments where science holds sway, or magic, or an uneasy equilibrium of both. Sixteen worlds of warriors, mages, and scientists, plasma-soldiers, steam-pirates, airship captains, and the ravaging forces of the God-Queen. Shryke is a killer who wields secret magic – on the run but searching for clues to reveal a threat to all reality. Barl has been kidnapped from the endless vistas of God’s Heart, a mysterious sphere that completely encloses its host star. He is taken on a journey through the vast magical-technological training spaces of the Guild of Assassins. Here he will be trained not only to kill but also to travel through the spaces between atoms. When Galdar’s people are massacred by the forces pursuing Shryke, they must find a way up through the atmosphere to the hidden city controlling all life bringing forces at the centre of Chainworld. Shryke, Galdar and Barl alone must stand to the Sun Machine and the world beyond the quantum. “

So that is Chain World, coming soon to paperback and Audible on 18th June.

Happy reading!

Gareth addressing classroom

The Dresser

Life is slightly stressed at the moment. In addition to my Digital Technology and Solutions Apprenticeship (above is a picture of myself speaking as part of National Apprenticeships Week) I am fulfilling my commitments to Bolton Little Theatre and assembling the sound cues for the last three plays of the season, most crucially The Dresser, which will be presented 8th -13th April. I’ve just made a trailer to promote what promises a marvelous play, and I decided to use the opportunity to learn about Adobe Premiere. I’ve been aware of this software for years and seen others using it. It’s used on all Westlake Film shorts. It is something of an industry standard at the lower end of video production. Manchester Metropolitan University now installs it as standard on their PC’s and my work computer has recently been upgraded.

My first impressions are pretty good. Compared to Cyberlink Power Director, my usual choice of video editor, the interface can be a bit intimidating and confusing with so many windows opening, but there is a logic to it. It didn’t crash and there is an impressive set of tools. The audio clean up tools were particularly helpful on this project, because I had recorded the actors in far from studio quality surroundings, although the reverb from the auditorium did add to the atmosphere for this play about a theatre company. I might add more thoughts about using it in time. For now, I hope you like my first Adobe Premiere promo clip.

The story: World War Two is grinding on and England perseveres. Last of his kind, actor/manager ‘Sir’ and his wife ‘Her Ladyship’ continue touring Shakespeare in the provinces with a company depleted by conscription. Sir is plainly unwell, discharging himself from hospital and Her Ladyship believes he should cancel his upcoming performance of ‘King Lear’. However Norman, his loyal, outspoken dresser disagrees and is determined that the show will go on.
You can find out more and book tickets from http://www.boltonlittletheatre.co.uk

Two other quick bits of news. James Axler’s Deathlands is back from the nuclear wilderness with a new series of audiobooks, edited and written by Rik Hoskin. Rik has written several of the original range, as well as masterminding the later years of its spin-off Outlanders.
Deathlands is a post-apocalyptic USA adventure series following a band of warriors searching for a home, but only finding mutant horrors, extreme environments and violent communities, as well as more bizarre SF threats.
The first book in the relaunched series is Glory’s Stockpile and you can listen to an excerpt at https://soundcloud.com/graphicaudio/deathlands-134-glorys-stockpile

Finally, the second episode of the Talking Pictures podcast is out and you can hear me and my thoughts on the Laurel and Hardy short Tit for Tat within it, amongst many other talented contributors. There is also an excellent interview with the head of Talking Pictures –
Sarah Cronin-Stanley. Listen to it at Spotify, ACast, iTunes or from Adam Roche’s own blog: https://www.attaboyclarence.com/the-talking-pictures-tv-podcast

Talking Pictures logo

Talking Pictures TV podcast

In the last few years, Talking Pictures has gradually built up a reputation as the go to TV channel for classic and cult films. In fact it has recently been confirmed as the most successful independent television channel in the UK. This confidence is reflected in its latest production – an official podcast which launches today.

For a long time, I and many others have wondered why with so many movie channels available, the opportunity to see old films has become increasingly difficult. It seems the mainstream UK broadcasters have decided to practically ignore black and white movies, and indeed anything made pre-Eighties. Not just that, but it feels as if the same handful of films are on constant rotation. How many times have Die Hard and the Back to the Future trilogy appeared in the listings recently? So it has been a joy to find a free-to-air place run by enthusiasts and their sympathetically curated schedules, a mix of classics and rarely seen curios, mostly from Britain but also the United States.

When the podcast was announced, its producer and presenter Adam Roche put out a request for contributors and I could not resist taking part. I have recorded a couple of previews of Hammer films being shown this February – The Pirates of Blood River and These are the Dammed. Although they do not feature in this episode, I intend to record a few more over the next months.

You can listen to the podcast via iTunes, Acast and other podcast providers. It’s an excellent magazine show about the channel, its films, and I recommend it even if I am not in it yet 🙂 You can find out more about the channel at: https://talkingpicturestv.co.uk/

Caprica Experiment logo

Friends visit Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer

Well I’ve been busy with my BSc in Digital Technology and Solutions lately. First term was a success, but that’s a personal challenge but perhaps not engrossing reading for you. However, whilst I do not have much personal creative news, friends of mine have been busy with great new projects.
John Isles (my co-writer on Auton Diaries 2, amongst other things) is kicking off the new year with an ongoing marathon viewing blog of the 21st century version of Battlestar Galactica. Meanwhile Rik Hoskin will have a short story included in the next Warhammer anthology from the Black Library.

In The Caprica Experiment John and our mutual friend Aaron Small embark on a marathon viewing of the whole Battlestar Galactica saga, beginning with the mini-series that successfully relaunched the beloved, if extremely 70’s franchise. John is long time fan, whilst Aaron is watching it for the first time. They will be recording their impressions as they go. Personally it’s a series I’ve seen one or two episodes of, but for some reason I have never got around to watching properly. Certainly I have been aware of it, for years it was the hottest SF show on television, though somehow it never quite broke into the mainstream in the way Game of Thrones or X-Files did. This seems like a great time to rectify that, so I’ve borrowed my dad’s DVD box set and I’ll be trying to accompany them myself.

Another fantasy universe is at war in Warhammer: Age of Sigmar and Rik has written the short story In the Mists of Chaos for the third Warhammer anthology Inferno! Volume Three. This series features tales from across the Games Workshop worlds. The book is due out in May 2019. For more details, pay a visit to the Warhammer Community news pages.

Finally a reminder that the Fairlight Pantomime Group in the village of Fairlight, near Hastings is performing my Rumplestiltskin on 24-26th January. Wishing them all the best. More information about Fairlight and its busy social life can found on the Fairlight village website .

Rumplestiltskin poster
Regeneration book open and six DVD discs next to it

Doctor Who – Regenerations Box Set

Regeneration is the genius idea that has enabled Doctor Who to become the longest running science fiction series in the world, rather than a sequence of fantasy television programmes aimed at the British teatime audience over the last five decades. So a DVD box set of regeneration stories, dramatic farewells rather than energetic introductions in this case, is an obvious idea. The resulting cross section of nine stories may not always be the programme at its peak, but probably a more honest portrait of the show than a collection of fan chosen favourites would be.

Here’s another review from my Ciao shopping site archives circa 2013, when a small tsunami of Doctor Who merchandise was sweeping through the shops as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations…

There’s a lot of Doctor Who out there for a new fan. It’s exciting but at same time maybe also a little intimidating for some. Presumably it is that kind of viewer that this 50th anniversary box set is aimed at. Its theme of “regeneration” seems an obvious choice for selecting a choice of stories across the show’s history but it throws up problems too. For a start Colin Baker and Matt Smith hardly get a look in, only appearing in the regeneration scenes themselves, whilst Patrick Troughton is over-represented because his final story is a ten episode epic. In many ways a collection of the Doctors’ debut stories might have been a better idea, not least of which is the fact that such stories often focus on the idea of regeneration much more. True Patrick Troughton would then have had the converse problem, since his debut no longer exists* but a compromise might have been found. Nevertheless the stories we do find here show the programme at its best and worst, so at least it is representative in that sense. All the discs contain new menus designed to match the book and the bare episodes only, none of special features are included from their individual releases. For your money you will get:

The Tenth Planet
A frail Doctor faces the Cybermen for the first time when their home planet of Mondas reappears and a squad of cyborgs invade space command at Antarctica.
A fascinating story which is as much to do with a philosophic debate about humanity as it is an action story. Plenty of good characterisation from the guest cast, particularly Robert Beatty as the aggressive General Cutler. The Cybermen look more like the walking dead, kept alive with a creepy life support system. I think it’s a great design and it’s a shame it was dropped so quickly for the more robotic look we’re familiar with. Episode four no longer exists, so it has been recreated in sepia toned animation. Thankfully the animation is a big improvement on the choppy twenty camera cuts a minute style of The Reign of Terror a few months ago and is an entertaining watch. This story will be unavailable to buy on its own until November, but I can’t see many fans buying this box set just to get hold of this story a few months earlier, especially since it lacks any special features.

The War Games
The TARDIS seems to land in No Man’s Land during World War One, but the Doctor soon discovers that he and hundreds of kidnapped human soldiers from across history are part of an ambitious plan by the alien War Lords.
An epic adventure which not only sees off the Second Doctor but introduces the Time Lords and the Doctor’s origins as well. It’s a splendid story packed with colourful characters, great cliffhangers and funky Sixties designs. Edward Brayshaw is superb as the enigmatic War Chief who carries a surprising secret of his own.

Planet of the Spiders
Mutated spiders from Metebelis 3 plan to invade the Earth and beyond using possessed humans and a perfect blue crystal once stolen by the Doctor.
The Third Doctor bows out in a story involving lots action, a plot inspired by its writer/producer’s interest in Buhdism and some surprisingly effect giant spider puppets. As with many six part stories it can drag in places and some of the scenes on the alien planet are rather stiffly acted. But Jon Pertwee’s farewell to Sarah Jane and the Brigadier, lying on the floor of his laboratory, is touching and probably the closest the Doctor has got to a conventional death scene.

Logopolis
The whole universe is in danger of collapsing as the Doctor and a newly revived Master battle on the mysterious world of Logopolis.
The Fourth Doctor’s final adventure is a very sombre affair, with Tom Baker himself looking worn, ill and lacking much of his familiar sparkle. It’s a story of ideas rather than action and should be commended for trying to bring some hard science into the drama, even if it is not completely successful. It also features my favourite regeneration sequence, with lovely music from Paddy Kingsland.

Caves of Androzani
The Doctor and Peri fight to survive in a squalid tale of drugs, gun-running and revenge on the planet Androzani Minor.
The best adventure in this box set, thanks to an engrossing, blackly comic script, a superlative cast and an unusually dynamic visual style thanks to director Graham Harper, who would go on to direct several episodes of the 21st century revival as well. It’s a case of everything clicking together perfectly.

Time and the Rani
An unstable regenerated Doctor is fooled by the Rani into helping complete her project to create a machine capable of reshaping the whole universe to her own design.
Not just the worst story in the set, but one of the worst stories in the whole of Doctor Who. The story is nonsensical, Sylvester McCoy is given very little help in establishing his Doctor, forcing to him to fall back on improvised slapstick, and whole production looks gaudy and light-entertainment. Kate O’Mara is wasted in a role that requires her to pretend to be Bonnie Langford for half of it.

The TV Movie
The Master endangers the world on New Year’s Eve 1999 when he tries to steal the Doctor’s lives.
An entertaining US television movie which the BBC hoped would lead to a new US co-produced series. That was never likely to happen but it did give us a splendid Doctor in Paul McGann and helped re-energise Doctor Who as a whole. The plot goes somewhat silly at the end but there are a lot of incidental pleasures along the way. It’s become a glimpse of what might have been.

Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways
The Doctor is horrified to discover a vast Dalek fleet has been controlling humanity for centuries from The Game Station.
Superbly confident adventure that mixes reality television satire with SF action adventure, not to mention combining the present and the far future and facing the Doctor with a major moral dilemma. There are so many memorable scenes, from the ‘death’ of Rose to the unveiling of the gigantic Dalek Emperor, to the Doctor’s holographic goodbye.

The End of Time
The Ood warn the Doctor that something terrible is coming to Earth, something that may destroy time itself, and involves the return of the Master.
A frustrating story that has plenty of great moments, but equally plenty of annoying ones too. The plot doesn’t make that much sense and the Doctor himself is curiously unlikeable much of the time, arrogant and wrapped up in himself. However it features an amazing cast of guest stars and a superb cliffhanger to part one. The Tenth Doctor’s final set of journeys to revisit all his old companions does seem an indulgence too far though and makes his near-death status seem rather ridiculous.

The accompanying slip-cased book is a real thing of beauty, filled with rare photos, exclusive artwork and a thoughtful text by Justin Richards which looks at each story in the set and the regeneration of each Doctor. The design work here is very handsome indeed, printed on high quality paper and it’s a lovely object to handle. My only caveat is that at a mere twenty four pages it is more of a booklet than a proper book. The discs themselves only contain the episodes, with none of the special features included in the main Doctor Who range. Their attractive menus are all specially designed to match the design of the book.

This is the kind of box set that would be terrific to receive as a gift (as in my case), but I think few people would plan to buy this for themselves, since all but one of the stories are already available, and mostly at bargain prices, whilst the book, nice as it is, is hardly essential. As a 50th anniversary celebration I wonder if a “Best of” approach may have produced a better selection of stories since this listing gives us three Master stories but no Daleks save for momentary cameos in The War Games and Logopolis. But if you are looking for a present for the fan in your life and you like them enough to spend nearly £60+ then this set would undoubtedly look good on any coffee table.

* Since this review was written, Troughton’s debut has been released in animated form on DVD and blu-ray.