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volumes have been a big hit for Dynamite Comics and Mr Sanderson himself has been delighted with Rik’s revision of his unpublished manuscript, set in what would become his Cosmere Universe.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.

Table with PC and mixing desk

Pantomimes, stories from two World Wars, and an Apprenticeship

Plenty going on at the moment, which has left me trying to find the organising equivalent of Hermione Grainger’s magical Time Turner gadget to fit it all in.

Most pressing at the moment has been compiling and operating the sound effects for Bolton Little Theatre’s production of the WW1 play “Private Peaceful” Running 10th – 17th November 2018. It’s the story of Tommo Peaceful, a British Army private facing the firing squad for mutiny. As he waits for the dawn, he looks back to his childhood in the Sussex countryside and his hellish experiences in France. As sound design I have created a trailer as well.

It’s always interesting to find the effects and then edit them to fit the director’s intentions. Not all my sounds are authentic to the period but they fit the model of what the audience will expect to hear on a battlefield. When I was first learning audio drama production, I soon appreciated that there are certain conventions about sound, such as arriving lifts which ping ,that are vital shorthand in telling a story. However whilst its good to keep my audio skills fresh and to help create a theatrical play, I do intend to pull back from this kind of role for a while after Private Peaceful has finished.

Why? Because there is plenty going on elsewhere. For a start I have begun a part-time degree called BSc(Hon) Digital & Technology Solutions Apprenticeship at Manchester Metropolitan University. I do believe that decisions and people can connect in unexpected but beneficial ways. So although there is not an obvious crossover between fiction writing and programming / web development /  business information systems, part of me thinks what has started as an opportunity to update and increase my technical knowledge, might help my creativity nous too.

Six Million Voices logo

Recently I was approached by my old friend Nigel Anderson, director of Angel Snow amongst others, too take part in a new exciting project. Six Million Voices is a short film inspired by the classic book about the Holocaust – The Diary of Anne Frank and is being made in cooperation with the Anne Frank Foundation. It is built around the album of music and narration produced by Chris Williams. You can listen to some of her music via her Soundcloud page.

I have been asked to play Anne’s father and the founder of the organisation, Otto Frank, which is a great honour and I am looking forward to working with Nigel and Chris soon. I’ll be able to tell you more about this film and my role in a future update. In the meantime for more information about Anne Frank and the work of the charity set up in her name, visit their website.

The sound of sleigh bells is in the air and I am delighted to announce that four theatre troupes have chosen to put on productions of the pantomimes I have written/co-written. Knowing how much work goes into any panto production, it is always very gratifying when people choose my work. I hope they all have a great time and if I get hold of any posters I’ll share them here. So coming soon for Christmas:

  • Aladdin, Spotlight Performing Arts, Middlesbrough, UK
  • Aladdin, All Saints’ N20 PCC, London
  • Rumplestiltskin, Fairlight Pantomime Group, Fairlight, UK
  • Treasure Island, Whitefriars College, Northcote, Australia

Thanks for reading.

 

Portrait of Wikkaman

It is time to keep your appointment with – Wikkaman

Some days I am amazed by what appears in my inbox. Such as this, the latest project from the indefatigable and talented Rik Hoskin. Wikkaman is a brand new comic strip appearing in the pages of Aces Weekly – an online comics anthology edited by UK comics legend David Lloyd, the artist responsible for V for Vendetta, Hellblazer, Night Raven and many more memorable guest strips.

Wikkaman will run for seven weeks beginning Monday 15th October.  It’s based on a real life band – a Dorset acoustic folk group – who’s company includes Rik’s wife Hannah. Now he has put them into some comic book adventures, which are in the style of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons he and I grew up with in the 70’s and early 80’s. It will run for seven weeks, beginning Monday 15th October. A labour of love for Rik, to me it is a project that harks back to his early, more personal work, and the indie anthology Nu-Comix.

Artwork is courtesy of Nick Taylor. Incidentally the colouring is by Chatri Ahpornsiri, no mean musician himself who provided music for my own Fine Line and Agents of Psyence audios.

Rik recently talked about the origins of his new work on John Freeman’s long-running comics blog Down the Tubes

Aces Weekly is a comic art collection of serials and short stories beamed directly to readers through cyberspace, featuring a mixture of new talent and established names. Subscriptions to Aces Weekly are a mere US $9.99 or UK £6.99 for about 150 pages over seven weeks. 21 of those pages are written by Rik. So it’s a pretty good deal, even if you don’t enjoy the Wikkaman story! You can find out more about this exciting project from its webpage.

And if you are interested in what band look/sound like, you can check out their Youtube promo too:

And why not visit their Facebook page too.

Quatermass blu-ray case and novelisation

Quatermass on Network’s blu-ray

Twenty years after Quatermass and the Pit thrilled British television audiences, Nigel Kneale created a brand new science fiction adventure for a very different era. Instead of the cramped studios of Lime Grove and 405 line TV cameras, Quatermass was made in colour, on film and made on mostly on location. The result was was an epic piece of science fiction television that divided critics and audiences at the time but has gradually risen in appreciation and is now considered very much a part of the Quatermass saga, as well as a fondly remembered ITV drama.

The near future. Seemingly thanks to a worldwide economic crisis, Britain has descended into a state of anarchy. Professor Bernard Quatermass, now an elderly man, his British Rocket Group a distant memory, has come to London to take part in a live television broadcast celebrating a pointless US/USSR space mission. But really he is trying to find his missing granddaughter Hettie. Then to everyone’s shock the spacecraft is inexplicably destroyed. Escaping the furore with a young scientist called Joseph Kapp, Quatermass discovers that masses of young people are being drawn towards ancient sites. Intrigued he and the Kapps go to the nearby stone circle Ringstone Round, only to witness the horrific sight of the whole crowd being wiped out by a huge energy beam from space. With only limited resources and growing danger from fanatical Planet People, a shaky government and violent gangs, Quatermass tries to uncover the nature of a terrifying wholly alien threat.

Nigel Kneale originally approached the BBC with the idea of a fourth Quatermass story, then titled “Quatermass 79”. Star Wars had brought science fiction back into fashion and the corporation was enjoying success with both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. However the BBC executive most closely involved left for Thames Television and took the project with him. Thames and its cinema division Euston Films were keen to branch out from the gritty two-fisted action fare like The Sweeny which had made their name and correctly predicted that science fiction was going to be the next big trend. In order to raise the budget the project was planned to be made simultaneously as a four part mini-series and a feature film for the USA market. Kneale later said he regretted the strategy, feeling it harmed the structure his script, producing a television series that was too padded and a film that was too short for the story to be properly developed. I beg to disagree.

This set contains both the television series and The Quatermass Conclusion movie version and it is fascinating to compare them. In order for the story to work as a film, an exclusive scene was filmed to cover certain plot points. The biggest story difference between them is a sub-plot about Quatermass becoming lost after a London gang ambush and joining a community of elderly people living in hiding under a scrapyard. In the movie he simply arrives safely at the hospital and witnesses that bizarre transformation of a young girl hit by the alien ray, something that happens without him in the television version. Another major casualty is Quatermass’ friend Joe Kapp, whose family life and later mental disintegration is largely excised. Generally I much prefer the television version, which has room for its characters to develop and generally become even more sympathetic, which in turn makes the violence and the destruction more horrific. There’s also more room for humour too, such as the fuming of a camp director of a soft-core porn television show, whose studio is taken over to transmit a message.

It is wonderful to see Nigel Kneale’s literate, often downbeat, thoughtful script be realised with such an impressive production. Director Piers Haggard had previously helmed the 1971 cult British horror movie “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and many well regarded television dramas. He gives the series a great sense of scale, creating a convincing urban apocalypse and bringing energy and pace to a fairly conversational script. Compared to other British television SF of the time, such as Blake’s 7 and Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, it looks amazingly glossy, shot mostly on location, featuring night filming, and some impressively large scale sets such as Ringstone Round. Only the space shuttle interior lets the side down, looking distinctly like painted wood and lacking the accurate details. Special mention should also go to Marc Wilkinson and Nic Rowley’s melancholy and imaginative music, blending electronic and conventional musical instruments.

A common criticism of the series was that its main human danger, crowds of mesmerised hippies, was an out of date concept for 1979, a time when punk rock was the major youth movement. I’ve always found this a rather shallow argument. Its’ sense of urban decay seems relevant in any age, whilst the way that Planet People and other influenced humans reject science in favour of New Age beliefs is quite prophetic of the mood of anti-intellectulism that appeared in the nineties and continues to a lesser extent today. “Stop trying to know things!” shouts an angry protester at one point. Kneale himself said he felt the onscreen Planet People were too flower-power when he had intended them to be more manic and aggressive.

Quatermass marked John Mills’ third major British television role. As a well-known film star on both sides of the Atlantic, his participation guaranteed the production’s huge (for the time) £1.2 million budget. Playing the famous scientist at a very different time of his life, Mills brings out the professor’s humanity and decency, a man who regrets the way his obsession with manned spaceflight has damaged his family. Writer Nigel Kneale felt the avuncular Mills was miscast and lacked the authority needed for the character. Yet the Quatermass Kneale has written is initially a beaten, lonely old man who gradually rebuilds himself as the story continues and Mills is fine at playing this. Playing Joseph Kapp, Simon McCorkindale, a few years before his international fame in Dynasty, Falcon Crest and ahem Jaws 3D, in many ways represents the man Quatermass used to be, passionate, principled and driven by his work to the point where he puts his family in second place. Kneale was critical of him too in later interviews, saying he was better at playing foolish lightweight men and wasn’t good at playing an intellectual. Barbara Kellerman is excellent as Clare Kapp, his sensitive wife who begins to show signs of alien influence. Veteran actress Margaret Tyzack makes a good companion for the Quatermass as a government District Commissioner called Annie Morgan. The series is filled with familiar TV character faces like Brian Croucher, Brenda Fricker, Ralph Arliss, David Yip, Kevin Stoney and Bruce Purchase. Sharp eyed viewers will also see a pre-fame pop star Toyah Wilcox as one of the hippie travellers.

The serial has been released on VHS and DVD before but Network have once again worked wonders with the HD restoration of the 35mm film footage. The picture quality is quite incredible, filled with detail I’ve never noticed before and making the most of outdoor set pieces such as the riot at Ringstone Round or devastated London. I was worried that HD would be unkind to the special effects of the day. I shouldn’t have worried because the optical effects look better and more detailed than ever before, whilst the modelwork in the space scenes whilst obviously filmed models, looks perfectly acceptable and does not break the serious mood. The brand new 5.1 surround sound mix is equally impressive. However purists will be glad to know there is also the option of the original mono soundtrack.

Extras

With many of the principle people no longer with us, it’s perhaps inevitable that the extras on this release are fairly minimal. No commentaries or new documentary on the production. However this area is more than satisfactorily filled by the enclosed booklet by well-regarded archive TV historian Andrew Pixley. Pixley’s style of writing is exhaustively researched but very accessible. He is already something of a legend amongst cult TV fans for his work documenting series like Doctor Who, Mystery and Imagination, Out of the Unknown and many other Network and BBC DVD releases. Suffice to say that everything you need to know about the making of this series is in this slim volume. He also puts into the context of Nigel Kneale’s whole career.

There is the option for music-only soundtracks for all four episodes, and also whether the view the episodes with the original ITV episode recaps. A silent version of the cinema trailer is there. It’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t be recreated for it. Probably the least essential extra is a silent, textless version of the movie credits, which is pretty similar to the first scene that opens the TV version. Finally there is an Image Gallery with many rare photos.

As an extra bonus (or gimmick depending on what you think), Network have released the first thousand copies of the blu-ray edition with one of four exclusive covers featuring artwork based on the original four TV title cards. The standard edition features a photo montage which is also used on the DVD release.

This new edition of Quatermass is definitely worth an upgrade if you have a blu-ray player. There is also a restored DVD edition being released simultaneously but with the blu-ray you’ll get a significantly upgraded presentation. It is a thoughtful, excellently made SF event series that deserves to be rediscovered by a whole new audience, as welcome as welcomed back by its admirers.

Ambassadors of Death DVD case

The Ambassadors of Death

Britain’s Mars Probe 7 returns to Earth after a mysterious communication breakdown and its crew are kidnapped by a gangster. These returned astronauts can kill with a simple touch. The Doctor and Liz Shaw soon discover that whoever the silent astronauts are, they can’t possibly be human. What has happened to the original human spacemen? Who is behind a government conspiracy to cover up the UK’s first official alien contact? Why does someone want to provoke Earth’s first interplanetary war?

Jon Pertwee’s era as the Doctor has two distinct periods. The latter involves the UNIT ‘family’, where the Doctor becomes fairly avuncular, his assistants Jo Grant and Sarah Jane have quite young outlooks and personalities and the whole feel of the show is warm. However his first season has noticeably more serious attitude and possibly a more mature one. Pertwee himself is testier, more aggressive and his outfit is mostly sombre colours. Liz Shaw his assistant is definitely a woman with an authority that comes from her impressive academic career. Although her taste for mini-skirts and kinky boots hints at a trendy Seventies outlook too. It could be argued that this season has less variety, with most of the stories taking place in one scientific complex or another and those stories are mostly too long, but I generally prefer this time when the Quatermass influence was more pronounced.

The Ambassadors of Death had a difficult genesis, with veteran writer David Whitaker being asked to produce several drafts, none of which the producers were happy with. Eventually the script editor Terrance Dicks took over the rewrites, along with frequent collaborator Malcolm Hulke. Because of budget problems, it had been decided to extend three of the four stories to seven episodes to save money. Whilst The Silurians brought in a prehistoric plague sub-plot to stretch its story and Inferno gained a trip to a parallel Earth, which helped to transform it into one the programme’s most epic and gripping stories, Ambassadors could only increase the number of kidnappings and attempts on the Doctor’s life, whilst the conspiracy plot hatched by the hidden traitor became both convoluted and full of logic holes. Yet to a large extent these problems do not stop the Ambassadors being entertaining moment by moment, in a Saturday matinee serial sort of way. Director Michael Ferguson is amongst the best directors the original series enjoyed, with a dynamic style and some clever visual tricks which make the most of the limited budget, such as the quick edits in the aliens’ unmasking scene, cutting between the Ambassador and Liz’s reaction. There are several excellent action set pieces, including a gunfight in a warehouse, a helicopter attack on a convoy and a car chase that culminates in Liz Shaw hanging over a raging river. For a while this is as Earthbound as Doctor Who could possibly be, it’s guns and spies and criminals who are motivated by money, damp countryside and television news reports. The Doctor may be an alien but here he could be a younger Professor Bernard Quatermass without any effect on the story. Even the spaceships are merely slightly advanced versions of existing Apollo era tech.

Then at the end of episode five a huge glowing UFO arrives out of nowhere and we suddenly return to a world where the Doctor is our intergalactic ally, exploring its psychedelic alien interior. I quite like the way the aliens never introduce themselves properly and the Doctor has never encountered them before (or since). Their enigmatic nature and briefly glimpsed true forms do help cover the fact they are some of the cheaper aliens the series has featured.

Out of the guest cast, William Dysart stands out as Reegan, the ruthless criminal hired to kidnap and control the aliens. He murders several men in cold blood, but he was also has gallows wit and shrewd intelligence. Cyril Shaps is also memorable as the weasely scientist Lennox, a clever but weak man in far over his head.

For many years this story only existed as a black and white film recording, except for episode one.  There was a colour Betamax recording from America but it was hopelessly blurry. The DVD restoration team have done a marvellous job in restoring the colour. Although the picture is still grainy in a few places, considering they were working virtually from scratch they must be commended. This is a two disc release with the second disc carrying the extras. The main item is “Recovery 7” a making of documentary which concentrates on the stunt men who were a regular feature of Doctor Who’s UNIT era. This seems appropriate considering this is an action heavy story and some coverage was overdue in this range. But it is a shame we could not have learnt more about the earlier versions of the story when it was called “Invaders from Mars” and featured the Second Doctor. The excellent modelwork is also well covered.  “Tomorrow’s Times” is a continuing feature across several of the later Doctor Who DVD’s, looking at the show’s press coverage. Obviously this time it is covering the Pertwee years, and it seems the show got a pretty soft ride from the critics, with only Mary Whitehouse raising complaints over the frightening content of some stories, particularly the killer dolls and policemen in Terror of the Autons. Finally there is the specially shot trailer for Ambassadors, in which Pertwee says key lines from the script (“I don’t know what came down in Recovery 7, but it certainly wasn’t human!”) interspersed with clips from the story. It is quite effective and it is good to see it has survived.

The commentary features a big cast and is one of the most enjoyable for quite a few releases. It is also a little sad that by the time the DVD came out, both Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John had died. But here they are in a cheerful mood, joined by director Michael Ferguson, actors Peter Halliday and Geoffrey Beevers, script editor Terrance Dicks, stunt co-ordinator Derek Ware and stunt performers Roy Scammell and Derek Martin and all moderated by fan and actor Toby Hadoke. Present and correct are the traditional information subtitles and photo gallery.

Whilst as a story it is not up to the standard of the recently released The Mind of Evil, The Ambassadors of Death is a very enjoyable SF adventure story and deserves a re-evaluation by fans, especially if they’ve only seen it edited and in murky monochrome on UK Gold.

Greatest Show in the Galaxy DVD case

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

An intelligent spambot invades the TARDIS and persuades the Doctor and Ace to visit the galactically famous Psychic Circus. However when they land on the planet Segonax they soon discover all is far from well. Why are circus folk so keen for the audience to take part in the talent contest? What is the secret of a decaying hippie bus with a deadly robot guardian? Is the circus the real reason travellers as different as Nord the Vandal and intergalactic explorer Captain Cook have arrived or is there something more powerful and ancient luring them here? The Doctor and Ace are going to need every trick up their sleeves to survive this big top!

It’s a little surprising to me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is the final Sylvestor McCoy story to be released because I think it’s one of his definitive outings. It is a story where script editor Andrew Cartmell’s taste for comic strip narratives, bizarre images and socialist leanings mesh perfectly with a traditional Doctor Who plot about killer robots, mysterious powerful aliens and a happy place generally being not what it seems. Writer Stephen Wyatt, fresh from his first, generally well-received Doctor Who story Paradise Towers serves a gallery of entertaining grotesques. The fact that some of these comic characters turn out to be evil is only enhanced by the way they are presented as being quite funny.

Take Captain Cook, played with theatrical vim by veteran character actor T P McKenna. This bumptious know-it-all is presented as a kind of mirror of the Doctor, a galactic explorer with a sexy goth assistant called Mags. Jessica Martin, best known as an impressionist, is immensely likeable as Mags and under different circumstances it might have been good if she had joined the TARDIS at the end. Her big secret is easily guessed by a series of heavy handed clues starting with the name of her home planet Vulpana. But the pompous Captain is no hero at all. He is entirely selfish and quite ruthless once his life is endangered.  Also caught up in the danger is Nord, a Hells Angel biker played by Daniel Peacock, a cockney actor who seemed to be everywhere in the 80’s. There’s Gian Samanco, best known for being TV’s Adrian Mole and here cast as a rather cruel portrait of an over-earnest fan, just the kind of fanatic who was giving Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner a headache in real life. Whilst popping up to play another in her long career of fearsome Cockney landladies is Peggy Mount.

A bit of trivia, Chris Jury who plays circus member Deadbeat would later audition to play the Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. “Aliens” fans might recognise marine “Frosty” aka Ricco Ross as the rapping ringmaster

By this stage Sylvestor McCoy has really cracked who his Doctor is. There are flashes of the old physical comedy business with his umbrella and falling over, but there’s much more of a compassionate adventurer who nevertheless has a darker side that allows him to manipulate and even risk others for a greater good. A pleasing streak of anarchy too. “You’re just an old hippie at heart,” comments Ace. Speaking of whom, Sophie Aldred is very comfortable in Ace’s bomber jacket and her cheerful rapport with McCoy is one her chief strengths.

This was a troubled production as the making of extra “The Show Must Go On” revealed. The location filming had gone smoothly, but then BBC Television Centre was hit by an asbestos scare and it looked as though the studio recording would be permanently lost, making this Doctor Who’s second unfinished production after Tom Baker’s Shada. Uniquely though, the story’s circus tent setting meant that a marquee was set up in the car park at Elstree for the interiors. Nevertheless it was less than ideal due to traffic noise and more time was lost when a fire alarm occurred. All this is covered in a decent documentary, which includes some surprising photos of the cast meeting the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Other special features include a deleted modelwork sequence of the spambot satellite and a music video created to accompany an original song by cast members Christopher Guard, Jessica Martin and T P McKenna. Frustratingly there is no accompanying information about where this song comes from or why it was recorded. “Tomorrow’s Times” is part of an on-going feature about newspaper coverage of the show and sadly has to record that the McCoy era had largely negative press. Victoria Wood’s slightly odd Doctor Who comedy sketch is included since it came from the same time. Future film star Jim Broadbent plays the Doctor in a brief clip that largely mocks the cheapness and made-up science of the show. “But Doctor! I haven’t brought the ming-mongs!” cries the Doctor’s companion. Composer Mark Ayres was auditioned by being tasked to write music for two sequences from this show and he’s included his versions as an extra too.

It’s a pretty busy and interesting commentary, overseen by DVD regular Toby Hadoke. Sophie Aldred, Christopher Guard and Jessica Martin provide the luvvie insight, whilst Stephen Wyatt, Andrew Cartmell and Mark Ayres represent the production side. There’s also the popular information subtitles and the photo gallery and finally PDF material which you’ll need a computer to access. Here the usual Radio Times clippings are joined by a story board for the spambot sequence.

I’ve always been a fan of this story and it is great to see it released on as well-catered a DVD as this one. Lovely painted cover by Lee Binding too.