Downtime: The Lost Worlds of Doctor Who

Before I get into this review I ought to declare an interest. Many years ago I wrote or post-produced or acted in several of BBV’s productions, so consequently I am amongst the many contributors Dylan Rees has interviewed for this book about the intriguing parallel realities that Doctor Who passed into whilst the BBC was not making it. But I my experiences were just a small part of the story, and it has been fascinating to find out more about the bigger picture. Not to mention discovering certain repeating patterns of behaviour when it came to BBV’s driving force Bill Baggs, such as peculiar film editing choices.

As the author remarks in his Afterword, a book like this is long overdue. For quite a while fans believed that Doctor Who would never return to television. In the Nineties Star Trek may have seemed licensed to print spin-offs forever, but felt that our show was destined to remain unloved by the BBC and the Not-We. So we built our own little universe of Doctorish films and radio plays, and for a while it seemed fresh, vital, the future of the show. Then Doctor Who came back with a roar and the VHS era of The Stranger, PROBE and Mindgame seemed to be swept under fandom’s carpet. So “Downtime” feels very fresh, a decade or more of brand new script origins, behind the scenes information, funny anecdotes and let us the honest – gossip.

Credit to the author for pulling together so many threads into a narrative too. Bill Baggs’ filmmaking career becomes the spine of the book. Ambitious, energetic and with a knack for getting people to follow him and make his projects happen, the book produces a fair picture of the way he ultimately sabotages himself by taking too many shortcuts, and too much advantage of others’ goodwill.

There’s plenty of great material here, such as Nick Briggs recalling John Levine’s determination to take the leading man’s responsibilities seriously and entertaining the crew whether they wanted to be or not. Mark Ayres working with Jon Pertwee on his last dramatic role in The Zero Imperative. Colin Baker’s early role as an unofficial agent and cheerleader for spin-off videos, persuading other name actors to take part. Lots of stories of small groups working long hours in uncomfortable locations, kept going by their love of the show and camaraderie. And always the constant hope that this video will be the one that gets them into the professional TV and Film industry. In fact some of the stories seem to echo the BBC anecdotes of Doctor Who itself. Dylan Rees mixes interviews of the time with brand new interviews. Those of the time are keen to be positive and build up the image of whatever the current project is. The tone of the contributors today is generally fond, if rueful.

My only disappointment is that I had hoped to learn some new facts or other people’s impressions of the productions I was involved with. Sadly, aside from the contemporary reviews which I had not read before, most of the information about the likes of The Pattern and Do You Have a License to Save This Planet? comes from my own interview. So I am my own unreliable narrator it seems.

Also welcome are the reviews of every production, which are fair and well argued. It certainly made me want to go back and watch some of them again. I’ve really enjoyed reading this book and I can fully recommend it to any Doctor Who fan.

 

Available as a large paperback or ebook from Obverse Books. Visit their website

 

For Battle and Glory – Recording Sontarans

I was just looking through some old CDROM backups last night, when I rediscovered this behind the scenes BBV podcast from 2000. Recorded and edited by Paul Griggs on the day of the recording of Conduct Unbecoming, it features myself, Paul and actor Anthony Keetch talking about Sontarans and the day’s work bringing my script to life.

Few people like to hear their own voices (am I really that nasally?) but it is an entertaining snapshot of a time in Doctor Who history, when BBV and other independent companies were carrying the show forward into the 21st Century. The podcast was originally released in the now obscure VQF format but I’ve converted it to MP3 for convenience. Enjoy.

Amazing artwork by Simon Hodges ( http://hisi79.deviantart.com/ )

This spinoff is still available to order from Galaxy 4 and can also be found on Audible.

 

Downtime out now, Wyrd Sisters soon

When I started off directing Wyrd Sisters I’d hope to keep a production diary up on this blog. Predictably this ambition was quickly eaten up by the time and energy involved in actually realising the play. So you’ll have to look forward to a retrospective article instead. However I can report that we are at an exciting phase where the books are down, the movements are being fine tuned and the set is almost in place bar the painting, thanks to the marvellous efforts of Jeff Lunt and his team.. Not to mention a whole wardrobe of costumes which have largely been designed and made from scratch by Francis Clemmitt and her team. I’ve also been out banging the drum and trying to get people interested in coming. Marketing a play is a job in itself. We’re having some publicity photos taken tomorrow which hopefully will excite the local media. I went on Bolton FM radio a couple of weeks ago and I’ll be popping up again on their frequency on Monday during the drivetime show in the evening. I’ve also made a short video promo for promoting the show on social media.

It’s going to be a show that’s different from pretty much anything Bolton Little Theatre have put on in a while. The cast are getting better with each rehearsal and its great to work with them. Best of all is Terry Pratchett and Stephen Brigg’s script, which is funny and wise. You can find out more and book tickets at http://www.boltonlittletheatre.co.uk/terry-pratchetts-wyrd-sisters/

That’s Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters 7.30pm 6 – 11 March 2017, Bolton Little Theatre!

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I’ve also learnt that Obverse Books have just published Downtime – The Lost Years of Doctor Who. I am amongst the forty people interviewed by author Dylan Rees about the remarkable collection of independent productions, both video and audio, that appeared in the Nineties and early Noughties attempting to fill the Doctor Who shaped hole which the BBC had created.

Of course my part relates to my work with Bill Baggs and BBV. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet but as someone who was very involved in that particular pond, not just as a writer but as a fan, I’m look forward to reading it. Within its 400 pages Dylan Rees promises many facts and stories that have never been printed before. The book is available for £9.99 as an e-book and £19.99 as a large format paperback. You can learn more by visiting http://obversebooks.co.uk/product/downtime/

Thanks for reading. Hope to be in touch again soon.

Flying Down Under – K9 The Series

Created in response to the popularity of Star Wars‘ R2-D2 and C-3PO, the Doctor’s robotic dog companion has had quite a busy life of his own. He has enjoyed a 1982 BBC spin-off Christmas special, toys, books, and numerous celebrity cameos. For years his creators, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, tried to get a fully-fledged K9 television series on-air and finally succeeded in 2009, no doubt helped by runaway success of the revived Doctor Who series. This boxset collects all 26 episodes of Brightspark’s Australian children’s television series, which was sold to several territories including Channel 5 in the UK. It is essentially a slipcase containing the two previous UK DVD releases.

London in the not too distant future where the government has become increasingly authoritarian. Robot policemen are on the streets. A secret branch of the government called The Division deals with alien incursions. Professor Gryffen works for The Division at his home laboratory, investigating confiscated alien tech, especially a time/space teleporter recovered from a UFO discovered in the Arctic. One night his experiments are violently interrupted, first by homeless teenage hacker Starkey, then a time/space portal opening up and unleashing a pair of reptilian warriors called the Jixen, pursued by K9. Overwhelmed by the Jixen’s attack, the robot bravely self-destructs to save the humans. To their amazement he then regenerates into a new sleeker form which can fly. K9 may have lost some of his memories but he is still super-smart, loaded with gadgets and loyal to his new “master” Starkey and his friends Jorjie, Darius and the Professor. Together they fight new alien invaders and the sinister plans of the security department, aided and abetted by Jorjie’s mother June, head of The Division.

The obvious comparison for this series is The Sarah Jane Adventures, the CBBC Doctor Who spin-off which also featured K9 in its later seasons. On the whole K9 – The Series is a more childish lightweight programme, its characters rarely having the depth of the regulars surrounding Sarah Jane Smith. Its format of individual 25 minute stories, compared to the two part story format of the British series, also means that most of the stories are pretty straightforward, with rarely much space for the characters to grow. But then something remarkable happens in the last ten episodes – it suddenly becomes much better in every department. Looking at the credits there is no obvious new writer or producer. It’s simply as if the team metaphorically drank a can of Red Bull and suddenly got inspired. From “The Cambridge Spy” onwards, the adventures are more exciting, the humour is actually funny and whilst the regulars do not get much richer, they do become more likeable and the acting become less stiff.

“Angel of the North” is the only episode written by veteran Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit writer Bob Baker and it is definitely the highpoint of the series. The artic base which discovered the Fallen Angel UFO comes under attack from revived alien monsters. Atmospheric, well-paced and featuring some welcome insight into Professor Gryffen, it is the one story that really recalls the feel of Doctor Who. Other highlights are: “The Lost Library of Ukko” which is the only story to feature an alien planet, where Starkey and his regular Division enemy Thorn become trapped, forcing them to work together.  “The Curse of Anubis” where K9 meets a race of Ancient Egyptian-themed aliens who he helped free from slavery in the past. Unfortunately they have turned into tyrants themselves. Soon he and nearly everyone else aside from Darius have been brainwashed into believing K9 is a god. And the aforementioned “The Cambridge Spy” where Starkey and Jorjie are accidentally sent back to the 1950’s and become involved with a suspected traitor.

The series has something of the look of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, with its young cast, bright colours and fairly stagey looking interiors. Its tight budget means that a surprising large ratio of its stories involve going underground so that the same tunnel set can be redressed again and again. Having most of the Division scenes take place inside what looks the back of a van is also distractingly cheap-looking. Sunny Brisbane looks nothing like London either. The aliens vary in quality from fairly credible rubber monster suits like the Jixen to stuff that wouldn’t be out of place at a Halloween party. On the plus side the title music and CGI opening sequence are quite catchy.

Originally it was announced that K9 would have a new voice but following a fan backlash, K9’s original voice – actor John Leeson –  was hired. Personality-wise this K9 has become more of a smart-alec and has lost a bit of his fusty, slightly pompous academic manner which he had in Doctor Who, but he is still recognisable as the same character. Most of the regular actors have gone on to have decent careers in the last few years but it has to be said their performances here are often quite wooden. Daniel Webber (11.23.63, The Punisher) in particular as Darius labours with a pretty poor attempt at a Cockney accent. But the wooden spoon has to go to Connor Van Vuuren as villainous Division agent Drake. My jaw dropped every time this guy was onscreen, seemingly unable to deliver a single line convincingly. He was about as menacing as the Innkeeper in a school nativity. It’s no coincidence that Drake’s eventual removal coincides with the late upswing in quality. The best performance belongs to experienced TV and movie actor Robert Moloney as Professor Gryffen, even though he is a pretty stereotyped eccentric Brit scientist who drinks tea and dresses a bit foppishly.

These four discs are pretty light extras-wise, with only text profiles of the regular characters spread across them. It is a shame that the behind the scenes programme that is apparently on the Australian release was not included, since there is relatively little information available about this series.

K9 – The Series is to quote another SF series – mostly harmless. Not as good a spin-off as The Sarah Jane Adventures or Torchwood, but better at least than the lamentable K9 and Company. It is cheap, cheerful and there is nothing to offend a family audience, although small children may find the lumbering dinosaur-like Jixen a bit scary. As far as I know it is not currently available to stream anywhere, making these DVD’s your only way of seeing it. Doctor Who fans might like to buy it out of completeness but have better be advised to set their expectations to low.

I wrote this review for the Ciao shopping site but it was rejected because this DVD set is now out of print. So I thought I might as well publish it here. Hope you enjoyed it.

Class – “Like a Hellmouth”

Torchwood High? Doctorloo Road? I suppose it’s appropriate that the latest addition to the Doctor Who family is something of an awkward adolescent itself. There are parts of it that are very good indeed, but there are also moments in these first two episodes when its teeth grindingly annoying too. Considering this is almost acclaimed author Patrick Ness’s first television work, it is confident work, and if the story gears are sometimes a little loud, it is aimed at a slightly younger audience who may not be as big a TV geek as me.

My heart did sink in the first half of For Tonight We Might Die listening to the tiresomely arch dialogue everyone was using, not to mention clunkers like Tanya’s “Isn’t it great not to have to talk about what the white kids want to?” But gradually the script calmed down and became more real, more engaging. The Shadowkin were effective monsters, the action was slick and the amount of blood surprising. The infodump scene about Charlie and Quill’s alien home was enlivened by the cleverness of seeing it through April’s imagination as a kind of paradise school of polite A+ students. I really like the concept of one supposedly enlightened race enslaving another as a ‘punishment’ but being embarrassed when the cruelty is pointed out. It is quite a neat metaphor for colonialism.

Peter Capaldi’s guest appearance was fun, particularly his joke about “strange” Ikea. For a man who says he hates banter, he was quite a puckish mood and surprisingly he was very complimentary about nearly everyone, I’d have thought one pudding brain reference would have got in. Katherine Kelly (Sarah-Lancashire-in-waiting as The Guardian newspaper amusingly put it) was also entertaining, although Miss Quill so far works much better as a comedy character than as a super warrior.

The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo was a definite improvement for me. It felt more confident, the dialogue much more natural and the plot the kind satisfying melding of Science Fiction A plot and emotional B plot that Doctor Who has learnt from Joss Whedon. The Ofsted sub-plot was fun too. They’ve definitely cast this well, all of the leads were impressive here, Fedy Elsayed and Vivian Oparah especially as sports joke Ram and lonely Tanya. Lovely little moment from the dinner lady too, that made her visceral death all the worse.

Class looks like it is going to be enjoyable, if slightly disposable entertainment for the next couple of months. It’s definitely aimed squarely at the Young Adult demographic and not suitable for children because of the amount of gore. Next week’s episode looks promising too. Going off the clips, after Steven Moffat’s emphasis on time paradoxes in the parent series, it’s fun to have one that showcases the monsters again.

April 2016 news round-up

It’s time for another quick collection of announcements about what my friends and I have been up to creatively and in some cases professionally too.

Last year I did an email interview about my times with BBV and writing three Doctor Who spin-offs, for a chap called Dylan Rees. Dylan is writing a book about the vibrant audio and video spin-off market which arose from the final years of the show’s original run and filled in the so-called “wilderness years” between the original and the revived versions of Doctor Who. It will be published later this year by Obverse Books. I’m looking forward to it, not just as a contributor but as a fan of that era. The cover has been already been released:

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Notice Sylvester as The Foot Doctor on the cover too! You can pre-order it from Obverse Books now. I’ll review once it is out.

My ever busy mate Rik Hoskin has had several projects out recently, including the first of a new range e-books based on 90’s cult TV show Hercules – The Legendary Journeys. I enjoyed Storming Paradise enormously. It captures the feel of the show very well. You can try a sample and order it from Amazon. He’s also written a second motion comic episode of Wolfblood, the hit BBC children’s series about werewolves. You can watch a trailer of it here at the BBC website.

Finally I recently made a new trailer for the next Bolton Little Theatre production. Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood is an excellent drama based on real events surrounding a US army investigation into suspected Nazi party members, following Germany’s surrender in WWII. Was famous conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler just a patriot on the losing side of the war, or an active member of the Nazi party? Colonel Arnold, traumatised by witnessing the aftermath of Auschwitz, is determined to find some culprits. For this trailer I decided to create a movie style one which sold the story, rather than a behind the scenes talking head piece. The results I think are pretty successful and I intend to make all subsequent BLT trailers story based too.

Westlake Films has a new home on the Internet

One constant that has threaded through my creative life for more than ten years now has been Westlake, a group my friends and I formed to make short films, for our entertainment and hopefully for others. Through this group I’ve been able to write scripts and see them turn into actual videos. Not to mention opportunities to act, produce, be a microphone boom operator, a cameraman, a gopher and to get stage punched and kicked far too often!

Now we have a new website, thanks to the diligent efforts of Kevin Hiley and Andrew Crines, and you can find it right here at http://westlakefilms.blogspot.co.uk/   Many of the films have been re-digitised with improved picture and sound quality for this new site. You can stream them on YouTube or download them for free!

Over the years we’ve made original stories and documentaries, comedy skits, fan films (mostly about Doctor Who) and music videos. It’s been a great learning experience, as well as a lot of fun.

Here’s a few of my recommendations if you have not tried Westlake before:

In the Fan Films section

K9 and Bloke – an affection send-up of the awkward Doctor Who spinoff that tried to make the Doctor’s robotic pet a leading star. Charlie Wall plays a shabby PI who solves local crimes with the aid of a long-suffering K9. Written by myself and guest starring Nigel Peever.

In the Films section

Memories of the Mill – John Isles talks to his grandfather Frank Brook about his working life as they tour a preserved steam driven mill in Burnley, in this nostalgic documentary.

Help Wanted – a short ghost story inspired by the tales of the great M R James. A thief’s life becomes a nightmare when he violently robs a church. Written by myself and featuring great music by Peter Wicks.

In the Haberdashery section

The Unoriginal Adventures of Robin Hood – a wickedly funny mash up of a couple of BBC fantasy shows which were on air at the time, written and performed by the cast.

This is just a small selection of what you can find. Hope you enjoy it and we would all would love to hear your thoughts.