Not quite nigh!

It’s now two years since I started my Doctor Who read-through project (Executive Summary: I’m (re)reading my entire (and now complete) collection of classic Doctor Who novelisations, together with (an incomplete set of) original novels/ audio-books set in the same era, in (internal) chronological order (more-or-less)). I purposely started this on 23rd November to coincide with the anniversary of the first episode broadcast.

By now I have reached the last few stories of the Peter Davison era.  That means I’m fairly well into the stories which I actually watched when they were first broadcast on TV (throughout most of the 1980s).  I’ve previously read quite a few of the novelisations of these stories, and watched a few of them on video/DVD, but my last attempted at a systematic read-through fizzled out mid-Tom Baker and I had many gaps in my collection (which I’ve subsequently filled – for the novelisations of TV stories at any rate) so for many of these, this is my first reacquaintance with them since I watched them the first time (and I’m sure I missed some episodes at the time).  This gives an extra sense of nostalgia to my reading from now on, although in general I actually prefer many of the earlier stories (Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton are my favourite Doctors).

The story I’m currently reading is Warriors of the Deep.  This is far from being one of the best stories in classic Doctor Who, or even within its own season, but it is quite an interesting story for me to revisit for two main reasons.

One is that it’s a story where I can fairly vividly remember at least one scene from the TV broadcast over 30 years ago.  The particular scene that’s etched in my memory is one of the episode cliffhangers, in which the Doctor appears to drown in a pool of water (supposed to be something to do with a nuclear reactor’s cooling system, I think).  Of course, the Doctor didn’t drown and I think that even watching it for the first time, at the tender age of about 7, I was aware that he wasn’t going to but it was still tense and exciting.

The other reason it’s interesting is that the story was written and broadcast at a time when the Cold War was, if not at its height, still pretty much in full swing and the story extrapolates from the then-present to a future (2084 to be exact – 100 years after the story was broadcast) in which the world is divided into two political blocs (East and West, who’d have thought it!) that are at war with each other.

Obviously, history followed a different course; the Cold War came to an end within less than 10 years and it doesn’t currently look like the future is going to be divided quite so clearly along those particular lines (any more than it’s likely that daleks will be invading the Earth in 2064 or any of the other futures posited by Doctor Who).  Still, the purpose of most (if not all) speculative fiction (including any Doctor Who story set in the future) is arguably, if not obviously, more to comment on (some aspect of) the world as it now is (at the time of writing) rather than to actually suggest that this is what the future will look like, so this story serves as in interesting reminder (for those of us who were there) or lesson (for those who weren’t) of how the Cold War affected our thinking in the early 1980s.

If Doctor Who from back then gives me a sense of nostalgia (i.e. warm fuzzy feelings about the past and how generally nice it was, or a desire to relive it), thinking about the Cold War gives me what can probably best be described as a sense of anti-nostalgia (a profound sense of gratitude that things aren’t like that any more).

I was too young at the time to have a very firm handle on the details of the world situation but I do remember an unpleasant sense of dread that everything was about to end in nuclear winter.  I remember on at least one occasion being particularly upset when I heard a plane flying overhead and thought it must be bringing a Soviet nuke to drop on our heads.

Perhaps more disturbing than the prospect of imminent Armageddon was the fact that, as tends to be the case in wars of any temperature, there was a strong tendency to think in terms of of “us” and “them” and, in particular, to view “them” (since they were safely hidden away behind the Iron Curtain and most of us didn’t come into any real contact with them to provide counterexamples to the idea) as all the same as one another and all evil, when in fact there was just as much difference among them as among us and most of them, like most of us, were just ordinary people trying to get on with their lives.

That is, of course, a huge simplification and very much a young child’s perspective on the Cold War (and one filtered by 30 years’ temporal fog to boot).  Still, to return to the Doctor Who story, this sensation of what it was like to live in a Cold War society (as well, perhaps, as the limitations of such thinking) is well conveyed, at least in the novelisation (another one by “Uncle Terrance”).

The story is also quite interesting, at least in hindsight, as it contains echoes of cyberpunk (a genre which was taking off at the time) in a tactical computer that is controlled by a specially-trained human operative interfacing it directly with his brain.  This turns out to be a definite weak point of the system, since the whizziest computer is useless if you disable the only person around who can operate it.

By the way, the story (as you might guess from the name) is set deep under the sea, on a top-secret West Bloc nuclear missile base (this is, incidentally, the first Doctor Who story for quite a long time to return to the classic base-under-siege formula that was a staple of the Troughton era) and the real enemy turn out not to be the East Bloc but a reptilian race who ruled the world before humans were on the scene and have now awoken from long hibernation and would like their planet back, if you please.  Though, if memory serves me, not to mention the Pertwee era stories – both of which I re-read last year – The Silurians (novelised as The Cave Monsters) and The Sea Devils, they will also not turn out to be the enemy so much as the inbuilt human (and silurian) tendency to be somewhat territorial and to shoot before thinking.

According to the spreadsheet in which I’m recording my progress, I have 249 items of classic Doctor Who material in my collection and Warriors of the Deep is number 176 on the list.  Therefore I’m about 70% of the way through my collection by now and fairly well on course for finishing by next November.  If I can time it right, perhaps I’ll be able to finish the last book (“The Infinity Doctors” by Lance Parkin) on 23rd November 2015.


A positive sadness

I hadn’t intended to write another Doctor-Who-related post so soon after the last one, but I came across a lovely quote in the book that I finished yesterday, which was too good to pass by.

The book was Full Circle by Andrew Smith, who also wrote the original TV story.   Any Doctor Who aficionado worthy of the name will recognise this as the first story of the classic E-Space trilogy and the one in which Adric (the companion that most fans evidently love to hate, although I always quite liked him) was introduced.

The quote appears on the first page of Chapter 1 (which isn’t the start of the book as this one has a prologue) and reads:

The [Doctor’s] face was at once immensely cheerful and yet tinged with the sadness of one who has known too many people for too short a time.

I’m nowhere near 750 years old (the Doctor’s approximate age at the time of this story), however much I may sometimes feel like it, and I’ve obviously not met anything like as many people as he had.  However, I’ve been living in or near a university town for the best part of the last 20 years (and, in case you know me and think I’ve miscounted, I’m referring to two separate universities), and these are notable for the transitory nature of large chunks of the population.  Therefore, whether or not it’s reflected in my face, I can certainly relate to the sadness of knowing many (though perhaps not too many) people for all too short a time.

It doesn’t help that my track record for keeping in touch with people when they (or I, though mostly I’m the one staying put) leave is generally pretty poor.  Of course, staying in touch is a two-way business so it would be unfair to apportion all or even most of the blame in one direction or the other.  Suffice it to say that my contact with some people I’ve known (and in some cases known very well and got on with excellently) is limited while for others it is non-existent.

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that (at least in the cases where you get on well with each other, which for me seems to be most of the time) it’s better to be able to enjoy the pleasure of someone’s company for a short while than never to have met them at all.

And if you are someone I used to know and have dropped out of touch with, please (a) accept my apologies, especially if you made attempts to stay in touch which weren’t reciprocated, and (b) feel free to drop me a line. [And if you’re one of my former English teachers, please accept my further apologies for starting two consecutive sentences with the word “and” :-)]

Double Vision

I’ve now reached the end of Season 17 in my (classic) Doctor Who read-through, which brings me to what is possibly the greatest tragedy of televised Doctor Who (greater even than the cancellation of the series in the late 80s as it’s arguable that it was losing its way slightly by that time and that the enforced break was actually a very good thing), namely the story-that-never-was: Shada.

It’s not the story that’s a tragedy, but the fact that it was never completed or broadcast.  This is particularly sad since it was not only (I think) the final Doctor Who script penned by Douglas Adams and the final story of his tenure as script editor but would also have certainly been one of the two best stories of what was a decidedly patchy season (indeed, some would say they were the only good stories – I probably wouldn’t go quite that far but I am judging most of the season solely on the books and I suspect some of them may have gone a long way towards remedying deficiencies in the original TV version) and quite possibly one of the best Doctor Who stories ever.

Incidentally, the other more-or-less universally agreed highlight of the season was the story City of Death, which was also written, or at least co-written, by Douglas Adams (under the pseudonym of David Agnew, along with Graham Williams and David Fisher; you can read the details in the Wikipedia article if you really want to know).

Of course, there have been many Doctor Who story ideas that have never got any further than the script stage, if even that far.  As far as I’m aware, though, Shada is the only one that got fairly well through production (with all the location shooting and a fair chunk of the studio work done) before it was cancelled.  The reason that it got thus far and no further was a strike at the BBC as a result of some industrial dispute.  No other story was made in its place – instead, season 17 only contained 5 stories instead of the then-usual 6.

All was not lost, as they were able to use some footage from Shada a few years later in The Five Doctors (the 20th Anniversary Special story) so that the fourth doctor could appear even though Tom Baker refused to reprise his role (a decision, I gather, that he later came to regret).  The BBC also released a video in the early 1990s with the extant footage held together by linking audio material supplied by Tom Baker (who by then was more willing to participate).  A friend of mine, who was a keen collector of Doctor Who material in the VHS era, had (and quite possibly still has) a copy, which I watched many years ago.  As I recall, it was pretty good, which only served to emphasise what a pity it was that it was never completed and shown in its proper time.

There has subsequently been an audio version produced, which I think transposes it to a story for the 8th Doctor (Paul McGann).  I’ve not heard that one and I’m in no particular rush to do so, though if the opportunity arises I wouldn’t mind checking it out.

Interestingly, although most people who know and care about such things, reckon Shada to be a fine story, Douglas Adams himself was by all accounts less than happy with it and, in contrast to the rest of the cast and crew, quite relieved when production was halted.  Due to some dispute or other with the BBC (which may partly have been due to feelings of discontent with Shada), he refused to sign the documents that would allow his Doctor Who stories (i.e. Shada and City of Death, as well as The Pirate Planet from the previous season) to be novelised and hence they are among the small group of classic series Doctor Who serials never to appear in the official Target books novelisation series, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

As I also mentioned in that post (along with the relevant link), the gaps in the official series were filled in by a series of fan novelisations from the New Zealand Doctor Fan Club which are (as I write, at least) freely available online.  The one for Shada is written by Paul Scoones.

In the case of Shada, however, there is now a (presumably) officially approved novelisation that was written by Gareth Roberts (based on Adams’ scripts) and published by BBC Books a couple of years ago.

I have just finished reading both versions and the comparison is interesting.  The Scoones one is by far the shorter of the two, at roughly the same length and level of detail as one of the target novelisations, while the Roberts one is a bit of a door-stopper as a 400-page hardback (though its now available in paperbook and e-book formats too).  The latter, therefore, has much more liberty of space to go into details of the backstory and characterisations and, I think, does a very good job of fleshing the story out.  The other one, to be fair, is also a pretty good read and probably actually fits better into the flow of the series of novelisations (to say nothing of the bargain price), being – as far as I can tell – a fairly faithful adaptation of the story as it would have been televised.  Both authors manage to remain fairly true to the spirit of Douglas Adams and it’s not too difficult to imagine either book as having been written by him.

In fact, Adams did more-or-less write a novelisation of Shada, as he recycled quite a large amount of the plot (including the name of Professor Chronotis, one of the main protagonists, and St Cedd’s, his (fictional) Cambridge college) for his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which was published in 1987.  Obviously, all references to the Whoniverse are excised, and it ends up as quite a different beast but if you’ve read either one you can’t read the other without a strong sense of deja vu.

Back to Babylon

My Doctor Who read-through project has now restarted following a 3 month break which occurred in a fairly unlikely place – namely the middle of the Key To Time season.  I would usually aim to have my breaks in between seasons, and certainly not in the middle of one of the most cohesive story-arc seasons of the entire run of classic Who, but for various reasons I felt (mostly subconsciously, I think) that it would be good to go away and read/do other stuff for a while before coming back to the books.  I’m now hoping to get at least to the end of Tom Baker’s stories (only about 2 more seasons to go) before I have another break.

As well as this, I’ve just started another sci-fi related project that’s been on the cards for sometime, namely a re-watch of my Babylon 5 DVD collection, which encompasses the whole 5 season run of the original TV series as well as most (though, I think probably not quite all) of the spin-offs.

I first encountered B5, as the series is usually known for short, when it was first aired in the UK in the mid 1990s.  My attention was grabbed mainly by the fact that much, if not all the graphics work, was done on the Amiga, which was my computer of choice at the time (although they used rather higher-spec ones than my basic A500+).  As far as I can recall, I watched the first episode or two but wasn’t greatly impressed by it at the time.  I think it was probably being shown at a time that was awkward for me to watch it and I was busy doing my A-levels and getting ready to go off to university (where I was without access to a TV for most of the time), so I didn’t pay it much further attention at the time (a very similar story to what happened with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another series that I’ve subsequently come to appreciate greatly).

Fast forward a few years, to around 10 years ago, and I was invited by one of my friends who, like me, was a bit of an SF geek but, unlike me at that point, was also a fairly big fan of B5, to join him in watching the entire series which he had on a combination of VHS tapes and DVDs (actually, he may only have had the first couple of seasons when we started watching but I think he planned to collect them all and eventually did).  His enthusiasm was sufficient to get me to agree to watch a few episodes and pretty soon I was hooked.  We didn’t have a particularly regular B5 viewing schedule but I think we managed to get through the first 2 or 3 seasons fairly quickly, often watching several episodes at a time.

Unfortunately (or perhaps not) our plans were interrupted as life got in the way – mainly because he got married and then fairly soon moved away to the other end of the country (in fairness to his wife, who was (and is) also quite a close friend of mine, we did keep watching B5 together until they left North Wales, just not as frequently as before), which left me stranded somewhere around the end of season 3, just when the main story arc was picking up towards its exciting denouement.

My solution to this tragedy was to get myself a box set of the entire series as soon as I managed to find one at a reasonable price.  It didn’t take me too long after that to finish watching it and since then I’ve been waiting for a good time to start again from the beginning.  I have decided that the time has now come and, over the past couple of days I’ve watched the first few episodes of the TV series (forgetting that there was a prequel film and a pilot episode in my collection that I had intended to watch in the correct chronological order this time round).

It’s quite interesting to revisit the early episodes with a knowledge of where the story is heading and who the main characters are, in contrast to the blissful ignorance with which I approached the series last time round.  I don’t know how long it will take to get through the whole series, and I’m not in a particular rush to do so.

One notable feature of B5 is that it has one big story arc running through the whole thing and the creator (J. Michael Straczynski) knew where he was finally aiming for when he started, even if many of the actual details were fleshed out later.  That said, most of the episodes would actually work reasonably well as stand-alones (though some would probably be quite confusing without knowing the back-story; as I recall there are quite a few episodes which give sufficient exposition that you could catch up reasonably well without seeing everything from the beginning).  Actually, the story was apparently originally intended to run for 5 seasons but it looked likely it would be cancelled at the end of the fourth season so they had to cram two seasons’ worth of material into a single season in order to get to the intended finishing point by the season 4 finale, only to find that they did get a fifth season after all and therefore had to bolt a whole bunch of extra stuff on.  Certainly the fourth season feels a bit rushed and the final season is quite different from the earlier ones (with my favourite character – Ivanova – sadly absent and several other fairly major line-up changes).

If I had to make a shortlist of my favourite SF TV series, I’m sure that Babylon 5 would be somewhere very near the top (alongside Doctor Who and Firefly).


My Doctor Who read-through has reached yet another milestone.

Today I’ve started reading the novelisation of the 100th TV Doctor Who story – The Stones of Blood, which appeared as the 3rd story in the Key to Time season (aka Season 16).  I happen to rather like this season, not least because it includes one of my favourite companions (the first incarnation of Romana, played by Mary Tamm), although this isn’t my favourite story in the season (I think that honour would probably go to the next story – The Androids of Tara, which is essentially a retelling of the story of the Prisoner of Zenda with a few SF twists and one of the best sword fight scenes in all of Doctor Who).

Although this is the 100th story in the TV series, it’s the 99th one in the series of novelisations as the previous story (The Pirate Planet, written by Douglas Adams, no less) was the first of about half a dozen stories never to be officially novelised.  Apparently this was due to a disagreement between Adams and the publishers (Target Books) about contractual details.  Fortunately, there exists an unauthorised/unofficial novelisation by David Bishop, formerly of the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club, which is freely available online in PDF format (along with the other stories missing from the Target line).

Furthermore, it’s not the 100th book in my Doctor Who library as I also have quite a few original novels (and a number of audiobooks), all within the span of the classic series Doctors (including, or in addition to, depending on your point-of-view, the 8th Doctor).  In fact, this is number 135 or so out of about 250 in my library (in the internal chronological order in which I’m reading them), so I’m just over half way through.

More milestones

Since I started my Doctor Who book read-through just over a year ago, I’ve posted occasional updates about it.

Some of these have been at (or near) significant milestones for the series itself (such as the boundary between the Troughton and Pertwee eras – or, to put it another way, the monochrome and colour eras) and others have been just at at moments when I had something moderately interesting to say (such as the reference to a “ham-fisted bun vendor” in one story).

Now, however, I have reached a personal Doctor-Who-related milestone within my read-through and am within sight of another.

I’m currently reading the novelisations of Season 14, which is the season that was being broadcast when I was born.  In other words, unlike all of the stories (or at least the original TV episodes on which the novelisations are based) I’ve read up to now (this time round), the ones I am about to read come from within my own lifetime.  Specifically, I’m in the middle of The Deadly Assassin, the third story of the season, which has the distinction of being (as far as I can remember) the only story in the classic series where the Doctor is entirely without regular companions.

Actually, given that I didn’t start watching Doctor Who as soon as I was born (or at least, don’t remember doing so), a more significant milestone would probably be the point at which I started watching Doctor Who and therefore saw most of the stories first-time round.  As far as I can recall, that was the “Five Faces of Doctor Who” season that the BBC showed towards the end of 1981, between the end of the Tom Baker era (finishing with Season 18 in early 1981) and the Peter Davison era (from Season 19 in early 1982).  This included repeats of one story each from the previous 4 Doctors (including Baker’s final story, Logopolis, which had a brief appearance by Davison at the end, justifying the title of the season and leading nicely into the new season that was to be shown after the Christmas break) as well as The Three Doctors, which (as the name suggests) included all of the first 3 Doctors.

Still, conceptually there seems to be quite a difference between “stuff that happened before I was born” (which feels properly historical) and “stuff that happened within my lifetime” (which I’m more inclined to classify as “current affairs”, although that’s probably stretching the definition a bit for things that were going on nearly 40 years ago!)

The other milestone I alluded to earlier is the point where, in my previous read-through, about 7 years ago, I stopped reading.  That was after reading The Invisible Enemy (the second story of Season 15 and notable as K9’s debut story).  I can’t remember why I stopped reading at that point – I think it was probably that I just got distracted with reading other things (it was just after Christmas 2006, so I probably had a stack of new books to read) and never quite got round to going back to it until so much time had passed that it made more sense to restart from the beginning.

In any case, this means that most of the Doctor Who books I’ll be reading from now on are ones I haven’t read for a very long time, if at all.   This time I fully intend to get to the end of the classic series run (possibly minus a handful of the 6th and 7th Doctor books that I don’t yet have in my collection and don’t want to spend large amounts of money on).  I’m currently just under halfway through (including all the extra books I have which are not novelisations of the TV serials) so if I continue reading them at the present rate I’d expect to finish sometime in the middle of 2015.

Even more delightful

A favourite book of mine for a long time has been The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

I first encountered this, along with his other book The Midnight Folk (to which BoD is a sequel) in the mid 1980s, at around the time an adaptation was shown on TV for Christmas.  I suspect, though I can’t entirely remember, that I saw the TV version first and then got the books shortly afterwards.  Certainly my copy has a photo from the TV series on the cover, along with a strapline saying “Now a major TV series”.

Over the years, I’ve read both books several times.  This Christmas I watched the TV series again (as my dad received a copy as a present) and this inspired me to dig out the books yet again – probably for the first time in 10 years or so.  When I did so, I realised that my copies (Fontana Lions editions) are actually abridged from the original stories.

I decided that I’d like, if possible, to read the unabridged versions and soon discovered that I could pick up e-book versions for my Kindle at quite reasonable prices, so I did so.

A quick comparison of the first few pages of the two texts indicates that the abridged version did indeed cut out quite a lot of the text of BoD (though rather less so of MF, which was evidently a much shorter book to start with; the Fontana Lions editions of both books are about the same length).  As far as I can remember (not having read the abridged one for quite sometime), it was mostly a matter of cutting out, or at least shortening, various descriptive passages and digressions, rather than losing any major scenes from the story.

I intend to keep my dead tree editions of the abridged stories as they are a souvenir of my childhood (as well as a good version to lend to any younger readers of my acquaintance who want to check the stories out) though when I reread the stories in future, as I doubtless will do, I’ll probably go for the full versions again.

By the way, I was quite favourably impressed by the TV version on my recent viewing.  Often, old TV series that are remembered with fondness can be quite disappointing when actually seen again.  This time, however, it seems to have aged well, not to mention being a fairly faithful (if slightly slimmed down) adaptation of the original story.  I suppose it does have an advantage that it’s set in the past (the 1930s to be more specific) rather than the present or the future and therefore doesn’t suffer from the problems of things like supposedly sophisticated computers running on magnetic tapes, with blocky graphics or even panels of flashing lightbulbs for an interface (one of my favourite unintentionally amusing features of classic Doctor Who, for example).  It’s not just that, though – the special effects were excellent for the time (and the doubtless tight budget they were working to), as was the general standard of the acting.  It was also nice to see Patrick Troughton in a role other than his famous Doctor Who one (and he’s a sufficiently good actor that I didn’t spend the whole – or indeed any – time getting distracted by the fact that I was watching the Doctor (and one of my favourites, at that)).