Under Three Hundred

The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 27 April 2015

(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me


For today’s blog, we enter the strange world of 1980s Doctor Who. In the early 1980s, the production team had discovered a concept called ‘continuity’. Not continuity as one might normally understand it – letting the characters learn from their experiences and change and grow, and trying not to contradict what has gone before – but continuity in the sense of including references to stuff that has gone before. Little easter eggs for the fans, and what’s wrong with that?

In particular, during Tom Baker’s last year they started opening each story with a scene which would refer back to the previous adventure. To tie it all together and make each story feel less disparate – a bit like the approach the show took in the early 60s. Nevertheless, it was still a little odd – off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other shows that did it. Episodes of Minder, for instance, didn’t have scenes referring back to Arthur and Terry’s previous nefarious exploit. Even sort-of-soaps like Angels didn’t refer back to the non-serial elements of the previous installment. Science fiction shows like Doctor Who were largely standalone with no back references – usually because they consisted of 45-minute episodes that could be shown in any order. During the 60s and 70s Doctor Who had largely been standalone too, though there were occasional references to preceding adventures, like the Doctor mentioning Skaro in City of Death, but these were the exception. So for Doctor Who to try to make the beginning of every new story tie-in with the one before was – let’s call it ambitious. Yes. It was very ambitious.

Of course, for writers of spin-off adventures, this is a little inconvenient, as it sort-of closes ‘gaps’ between television stories where spin-off adventures could plausibly be set. So you have to choose your ‘gaps’ carefully. On the other hand, when I wrote Psychodrome, I included an opening scene full of references to the preceding television adventure (Castrovalva) as a deliberate authentic touch:

ADRIC: No, but just in case, this can be your room. It’s just down the corridor from the control room, so you shouldn’t be able to get lost.

TEGAN: What are you insinuating?

ADRIC: You did get lost before. There’s still some of your lipstick on the walls.

- and John Dorney ingeniously slotted Iterations of I into the ‘gap’ between Black Orchid and Earthshock. These things are fun, they’re more easter eggs for the fans, and so they have to be done.

But the point of this blog post is, those little back-reference scenes fascinate me. They’re all clearly the work of the script editor rather than the credited writer of that particular serial (unless that serial is credited to the script editor) and have been added fairly late in the process. Also, they only really exist for the sake of the continuity reference, they don’t really have much point, dramatically or plot-wise, and sometimes include quite contorted conversations in order to cover the necessary ground. They are essentially gratuitous. But since they have no call to be there, the art lies in the fact that they are there.

(Of course, sometimes they’re not gratuitous. Sometimes they are very useful, when the closing installment of the previous adventure has over-run, it means you can provide explanation which was omitted. But I’ll come to that later).

But here, for my own amusement more than anything, is a quick guide to these scenes. Quotes taken from the invaluable chakoteya script archive.

The Leisure Hive – no reference to the preceding story (whatever that was), but an inaccurate reference to Horror of Fang Rock:

“This is the second time I've missed the opening of the Brighton Pavilion”

Meglos - no reference to the preceding story.


Full Circle this adventure has a rather low-key opening as it has to set up the summons to Gallifrey, Romana’s reluctance to return and the whole E-Space thing. Plus it has to explain what happened to the human who was in the TARDIS at the end of Meglos.

DOCTOR: Well, now we've dropped off our Earth friend we can be on our way.
ROMANA: You've made up your mind, then?
DOCTOR: Oh, yes. We can't resist a summons to Gallifrey.

State of Decay – lots of stuff about E-space but no specific reference to the preceding story.

Warriors’ Gate – again, stuff about E-space but no specific reference to the preceding story.

The Keeper of Traken another very low-key opening for an adventure, some stuff about how we’re in N-space and that the Doctor and Adric are still due to return to Gallifrey (we never do find out what that summons at the end of Meglos was about, do we?) but no specific reference to the preceding story.

Logopolis more stuff about the return to Gallifrey but no specific reference to the preceding story.

Now Peter Davison takes over – this is where it gets interesting...

Castrovalva – a great reference to the preceding story, it's funny, and has a plot reason to be there!

ADRIC: I thought the whole point of this Pharos Project of yours was to track down alien intelligences. We thought we'd save you the trouble and come to you.

Four To Doomsday – while this story contains references to Uncle Tom Artron Energy and all, it doesn’t refer back to Castrovalva. Even the idea that the Doctor is trying to return Tegan home wasn’t mentioned in Castrovalva. So there’s a gap, one which I exploited in Psychodrome.

Kinda – a reference to the so-what-was-the-point-of-that-then cliffhanger of Four to Doomsday.

ADRIC: She's hopeless in her present state of mind.
NYSSA: Don't exaggerate. I only fainted.


The Visitation – This is where it gets serious. Two whole scenes are dedicated, pretty much, to the characters discussing the events of the previous story purely for the sake of continuity. Firstly:

DOCTOR: How many times have I told you, Adric, not to interfere with things that you don't understand.
ADRIC: I was trying to escape.
DOCTOR: In the TSS? You were lucky you didn't destroy the whole Kinda tribe.
ADRIC: I didn't realise it would be that difficult to control.
DOCTOR: That isn't the point. You should never have got into that unit.
ADRIC: Well, as it turned out no one was hurt.
DOCTOR: Apart from Aris.
ADRIC: A flesh wound.

And this classic scene – I particularly enjoy Tegan’s line beginning “But while you...”

NYSSA: What's the matter?
TEGAN: It's only sunk in properly, what happened to me on Deva Loka.
NYSSA: What? The Doctor said nothing eventful had occurred.
TEGAN: He would. But while you were enjoying forty eight hours peaceful sleep in the delta wave augmenter, my mind was occupied. Taken over.
NYSSA: By whom?
TEGAN: More a what. Something called a Mara. It makes me shiver to think of it.
NYSSA: You weren't hurt?
TEGAN: No. No, but that's not the point.

Black Orchid – this story’s reference rather spoils the gag at the end of the previous story, that the Doctor has accidentally started the Great Fire of London and just tells his companions “I’ll explain someday”.

NYSSA: You think that wise, considering what we've just done to London?
DOCTOR: Oh, that would have happened if we'd been there or not. All part of Earth's history.

Earthshock – What I like about this reference is Adric’s final comment, which is wonderfully meta.

DOCTOR: You must read this, Adric. The Black Orchid.
ADRIC: Why?
DOCTOR: It's fascinating. Such scholarship.
ADRIC: Why should that interest me?


Time-Flight – given Adric’s demise in the previous story, it’s entirely right that this one should begin with the characters reacting to that. What I particularly enjoy though, is the incredibly crunching gear-change as we have to shift from genuine character stuff to a story where everyone is behaving as though nothing has happened. The Doctor literally goes from mourning Adric to checking the cricket scores.

What’s also fun is that with the line “Cyber fleet dispersed” Nyssa deals with the fact that the previous story ended with a massive great plot point unresolved!

DOCTOR: Crew of the freighter safely returned to their own time.
NYSSA: Cyber fleet dispersed.
TEGAN: Oh, great. You make it sound like a shopping list, ticking off things as you go. Aren't you forgetting something rather important? Adric is dead.
NYSSA: Tegan, please.
DOCTOR: We feel his loss as well.
TEGAN: Well, you could do more than grieve. You could go back.
NYSSA: Could you?
DOCTOR: No.
NYSSA: But surely the Tardis is quite capable of -
TEGAN: We can change what happened if we materialise before Adric was killed.
DOCTOR: And change your own history?
TEGAN: Look, the freighter could still crash into Earth. That doesn't have to be changed. Only Adric doesn't have to be on board.
DOCTOR: Now listen to me, both of you. There are some rules that cannot be broken even with the Tardis. Don't ever ask me to do anything like that again. You must accept that Adric is dead. His life wasn't wasted. He died trying to save others, just like his brother, Varsh. You know, Adric had a choice. This is the way he wanted it.
TEGAN: We used to fight a lot. I'll miss him.
NYSSA: So will I.
DOCTOR: And me. But he wouldn't want us to mourn unnecessarily.
(MASSIVE CRUNCHING OF GEARS)
NYSSA: Where are we going?
DOCTOR: Special treat to cheer us all up.


Arc of Infinity – Oh, this story has a couple of doozies. Two wonderfully pointless scenes that – although they don’t refer back to Time-Flight – exist purely to address complaints from the Doctor Who Monthly letters page. The Doctor and Nyssa might as well turn to the camera and say “We’ve had lots of letters.” 

First there’s this scene, which explains why there was no sound on the scanner in Earthshock (yes, that was a glaring mistake that leapt out at me too).

DOCTOR: And such a simple repair job.
NYSSA: Why didn't you do it sooner?
DOCTOR: Well, you know how it is. You put things off for a day, next thing you know it's a hundred years later.
NYSSA: It'll make quite a difference to have audio link-up on the scanner again.
DOCTOR: Mmm. Let's see if it works.

Seriously, that’s a scene! And then we have this one, which exists – and this delights me so much – purely to explain why a scene in Earthshock contradicted a line from The Hand of Fear broadcast five years earlier

When did the Doctor tell Nyssa about the state of temporal grace? No idea.

DOCTOR: Perfect.
NYSSA: We have an audio system, but nothing to listen to.
DOCTOR: And now we have nothing to look at. Couldn't be better. Peace and quiet is just what the doctor ordered.
NYSSA: Doctor? There are many other repairs to do.
DOCTOR: Well, there's nothing urgent, is there?
NYSSA: The navigational system? That must be faulty. We never seem to arrive where we intend.
DOCTOR: No. Well, you see, ever since the Cybermen damaged the console -
NYSSA: And that's another thing. The Tardis used to be in a state of temporal grace, you said. Guns couldn't be fired.
DOCTOR: Yes. Well, nobody's perfect.

God, what a scene. Full marks, though, to Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton in trying to find some dramatic point in playing it.

It’s not a reference to the preceding story but I do love this moment where, in a moment of crisis, the Doctor invites the fan viewers to check their Doctor Who Programme Guides.

DOCTOR: High Council of Time Lords. We're being taken back to Gallifrey.
NYSSA: Why?
DOCTOR: I don't know. It must be urgent. Only twice before in our history has the recall circuit been used.

Well, there was that summons in Meglos, and The Hand of Fear of course, and The War Games, and The Invasion of Time possibly, but would the Doctor remember that? And what about when the Doctor nicked the TARDIS to begin with, did they not try using it then? But, hang on, wait, is he saying that only twice before in the entire history of the Time Lords have they ever had cause to recall a TARDIS? That this circuit which is presumably in every TARDIS has only ever been used twice before – both times with him? It’s kind of amazing that they bothered installing it, to be honest, given that they get so little use out of it. What a strange, strange line – which only serves to undermine the drama of the moment ("The Doctor has been recalled to Gallifrey!" "Oh no, that sounds terrible!" "But don’t worry – it’s happened twice before." "Oh, that’s okay, I’m not so worried now")

Snakedance – Another classic. It turns out that the fact that there are ‘traces of anti-matter’ is a complete red herring, it has nothing to do with the story, it is never mentioned again. It’s only there so they can talk about Omega.

NYSSA: Well?
DOCTOR: We're not where we're supposed to be.
NYSSA: Where are we?
DOCTOR: I don't know. There are traces of anti-matter.
NYSSA: Omega?
DOCTOR: Oh, highly unlikely he's still alive.


Mawdryn Undead – It turns out that the final episode of Snakedance was over-running, so some of the exposition had to be cut. So instead, here it is at the beginning of the next episode, a complete debriefing session for the end of Snakedance. I particularly like Tegan calling Dojjen “that Dojjen person”.

TEGAN: Doctor? I am free of the Mara, aren't I?
DOCTOR: Tegan, Tegan, Tegan.
TEGAN: I'm scared.
DOCTOR: There isn't any need to be.
TEGAN: I'm still having terrible dreams.
DOCTOR: It's your mind's way of coping with the experience. You've suffered a great deal.
TEGAN: That could have been prevented if that Dojjen person had destroyed the Great Crystal.
DOCTOR: No, he couldn't. The Mara could only be destroyed during the process of its becoming. It had to be trapped between modes of its being.
TEGAN: The feelings of hate. Doctor, I couldn't go through it again.
DOCTOR: Well, you're completely free of it now, Tegan. For you, the Mara is dead forever.
NYSSA: For all of us, I hope.

Terminus – Another low-key opening, as it’s mostly Tegan discovering that Turlough has been interfering with a roundel. Turlough mentions his school but there’s no specific reference to the preceding story.

Enlightenment – No specific reference to the preceding story. And no mention of Nyssa, they’ve completely forgotten about her already!

The King’s Demons – Ah, I love this one. Back when we were discussing setting some Big Finish adventures in the gap between Enlightenment and The King’s Demons Alan Barnes and I thought it might be fun to begin each adventure with Tegan suspecting it was a Black Guardian trap. Unfortunately we came to our senses and didn’t do it (though I included a line in Cobwebs, my first story set in that gap, as well as an authentically continuity-laden opening scene).

Anyway, here’s The King’s Demons creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense:

TURLOUGH: Planet Earth.
DOCTOR: So it seems.
TURLOUGH: You didn't set the coordinates for here by any chance?
DOCTOR: No.
TEGAN: When is it?
DOCTOR: March the fourth, 1215.
TEGAN: Is it England?
DOCTOR: Yes, it is.
TEGAN: Could this be a Black Guardian trap?
DOCTOR: I don't think so, but something certainly isn't right.

The Five Doctors – Oh, this is glorious. This story opens with the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough visiting the Eye of Orion, just as they said they would at the end of the previous adventure. So far, so good. But – and this is amazing – they’ve lost a companion! At the end of The King’s Demons, the ever-languid Kamelion had joined the TARDIS team. And now he’s vanished. He’s not even mentioned. So we have gone from stories painstakingly going out of their way to refer to the previous adventure to a complete absence of basic continuity. I don’t think Terrance Dicks had even been told about Kamelion.

And after that, I think the production team (wisely) gave up on these sort of back-references as more trouble than they were worth. Yes, there’s a line in The Caves of Androzani that refers to Planet of Fire, but generally the days of “Let’s spend a scene talking about what happened last time” were over. It was the end of an era. From now on, it was back to standalones - until the Sylvester McCoy era, but that's another story...

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Romance

This month also saw the release of John Dorney’s excellent adaptation of Gareth Robert’s Doctor Who novel, The Well-Mannered War. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet but I’m sure it’s excellent if the script is anything to go by. I script-edited this story, along with John’s previous two adaptations of Gareth’s novels The Romance of Crime and The English Way of Death.


I’m not sure what there is to say about script-editing. Obviously, in these instances, the story was already there, so my role was mainly to act as a fresh pair of eyes, to give my honest opinion. Because I’ve written a few Doctor Who scripts myself, and because I’ve saturated my brain with the contents of other people’s Doctor Who scripts, I’m in a position where I can not just merely criticize, but also offer suggestions on how things might be fixed; the writer doesn’t have to follow my suggestions, I am not Genghis Khan, it’s more a case of going ‘If you’re stuck, here’s one way that it could be fixed, which might give you an even better idea of how to fix it, in which case, even better’. Also, in suggesting a way something might be fixed, I’m hopefully giving them a clearer idea of the nature of the problem. I know from being on the receiving end of notes how vexatious it can be to receive notes saying ‘This bit doesn’t work’ without the notes being clear why it doesn’t work or giving any clue how it might be made to work.

The important thing, I think, is that although I’m offering suggestions on how things can be fixed, the writer is welcome to go their own way. Or to argue that I’m entirely wrong, of course, that’s also welcome. Quite often my suggestion will be to just cut the bit that doesn’t work, because (in my experience) quite often the reason why something doesn’t work is because it doesn’t need to be there. A successful TV writer of my acquaintance told me a while back that the most valuable thing about script editors’ notes isn’t what they say, but that they tell you at what points in the story the script editor was bored! I’m not sure I completely agree with that, but it never ceases to surprise me how often a problem with a script can be solved by simply cutting the problematic section, or by entering scenes later and leaving them earlier. ‘If in doubt, cut it out’, is a motto I have just made up.

(It also saves a hell a lot of time and effort, but that’s just a bonus).


The one other thing that I think is important is to point out which bits of the script are good, which bits are exciting, where you laughed out loud, where you felt emotionally involved, because the writer needs to be told ‘For God’s sake, don’t cut this bit out!’ Plus it can be very disheartening to get back notes which are all negative, I think notes should be encouraging and chatty, not a school teacher marking your essay and nitpicking over grammar and punctuation.

But that’s in general. In specific, what was unusual with these stories was that they were adaptations, so, as I said earlier, the plots were already there, they already worked – but they would need to work on audio, for a new audience. So although I’d read and greatly enjoyed the novels back in the day (The Romance of Crime was partially responsible for me getting back ‘into’ Doctor Who) I thought it would be a mistake to re-read them before editing the scripts. I wanted to make sure I came to the stories as a new listener would, to make sure I wouldn’t be subconsciously filling in bits with stuff I’d read in the novel, and that I would be judging each line on its merits, irrespective of whether it was a line by Gareth Roberts or John Dorney. I didn’t want the knowledge of knowing whether a line or not was from the novel to influence my reaction to it. All that mattered was the script as a script, judged in its own terms, not how true it was to the novel.

Although, as I’ve said elsewhere, Gareth’s novels were quite close to TV scripts, being written as novelisations of imaginary TV stories, I think that adapting them wasn’t as straightforward as you might think. Because while the novels contain scenes that are deceptively evocative of the TV show, if they were just copied and pasted into a script they would be far too long. In a novel you can have characters chatting away for page after page, making long, amusing speeches, but in a script you’re always aware that the clock is ticking, that as soon as you go onto 3 pages you’re into what is going feel like quite a long scene, and that 4 pages is kind of the absolute limit unless there is a very good reason not to cut away. So John did a hell a lot of work, editing stuff down and restructuring the plot (because the plot of a 280-page novel is far too much for a 90-minute script). I can take no credit for this, I just sat back and watched him do it, and said ‘well done’ when he’d finished.


However, that said, with all the books there were bits that I remembered from reading them, favourite moments that had stuck with me, and so inevitably I would be looking out for them when reading the script. Usually they were in there, or there was a very good and clear reason why they weren’t there, but once or twice there were scenes I missed. On those occasions, I made a case why they should be included (not solely because I’d remembered them, but because they served a purpose, such as getting across a lot of exposition quickly, neatly and amusingly) and then it was up to John to decide whether or not to include them.

The one other thing is that because these stories are set in the 1979 era of Doctor Who, when it was script-edited by Douglas Adams, I felt they should really capture the spirit of that era. That’s another element of script-editing, I think – to identify what a script is trying to achieve, and to help it do that thing as well as possible, and not to try to make it do something else out of personal taste (unless what the script is trying to do is the wrong thing for some reason). Anyway, as far as these stories were concerned, that meant that I would suggest some extra jokes in the notes. Most of which John Dorney very wisely ignored - though I hope he found them amusing - but some he incorporated one or two. Usually it would just me be going ‘This bit is very funny, why not take it even further’; building on what was already there, not sticking funny bits in where it wasn’t appropriate (although, it could be argued, Douglas Adams occasionally did do that!).

But as far as my contribution goes – my very small contribution – that’s about it. Anyway, to summarize, Gareth Roberts’ three novels were excellent, one of them is back in print so you can buy it if you like, and John Dorney’s adaptations of the novels are as good if not even better, so you should buy those too.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Thieves In The Temple

This weekend Big Finish are having a sale of their full-cast productions of Doctor Who’s ‘lost stories’ – that is, stories where the script got lost somewhere down the back of a filing cabinet in the 1960s, 70s or 80s, which is why they never got made (along with sundry other reasons).

Two of my stories are included in the sale; The Valley Of Death, a fourth Doctor and Leela story based on a story outline by Philip Hinchcliffe, and The Guardians Of Prophecy, based on a 20-page synopsis by Johnny Byrne.

I’ve blogged about The Valley Of Death here, and included deleted scenes here, and I’ve blogged about The Guardians Of Prophecy here and detailed the adaptation process here.

Please buy them. If you buy the fourth Doctor Who lost stories box set, you also get The Foe From The Future by John Dorney based on a synopsis by Robert Banks Stewart (and script-edited by me).


As a taster/incentive, here’s the first page of the script of The Valley Of Death, very Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

SCENE 1. EXT. RAINFOREST.

(TROPICAL RAINFOREST. RAIN, ANIMAL CALLS)

PERKINS: (NARRATION)
The first of May, 1873, day thirty-six of our quest into the interior of the Amazon rainforest. Progress has been slow due to constant rain and increasing insubordination amongst the natives...

NATIVE: (AD-LIB TRIBE LANGUAGE) Metaba fan nagada tolo! Retaga!

PERKINS:
Summersby! What’s the fellow say?

SUMMERSBY:
The bearers, Professor. We’ve lost two more of them. And our guides are insisting we must not advance any further.

PERKINS:
You would do well to remind them who’s in charge of this expedition! Who’s paying their wages!

SUMMERSBY:
I have tried, Professor. But they say - they say we are approaching a place they call the Valley of Death. They say that anyone who enters it will never return.

PERKINS:
Primitive superstitions, nothing more!

SUMMERSBY:
Maybe, but if we lose any more bearers, we’ll have no choice but to turn back.

PERKINS:
Turn back? When we are so close to our goal? We go on, Summersby. With or without them!

(THEY ADVANCE THROUGH JUNGLE, TO A STREAM)

PERKINS: (NARRATION)
And so we continued through the dark, steam-shrouded undergrowth, until at noon, I gave the order for us to pause at a stream to replenish our supplies, when suddenly -

(NATIVE GUIDE SCREAMS. OMINOUS, BOOMING CROAKING)


And here’s the first page of The Guardians Of Prophecy. “Let us have no more craven talk” – my little tribute to the genius of Eric Saward. I love that stuff!

SCENE 1. PALACE VAULT.

MURA, WORLD-WEARY CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD, AND ESCALUS, A YOUNG, NAIVE GUARD. FX: ECHOEY, FLAGSTONE FLOOR, CRYPT-LIKE VAULT.

ESCALUS:
I’m still not sure about this, sir.

MURA:
This is no time for an attack of conscience, Escalus. I could have selected anyone from the ranks for this task, but I chose you. Was I mistaken in my choice?

ESCALUS:
No, sir, but if we get caught –

MURA:
We won’t get caught, Escalus. The palace guard have been commanded to keep watch elsewhere.

ESCALUS:
You’re sure about that, sir?

MURA:
Of course I’m sure. (BEAT) I gave the order myself.

ESCALUS:
If you say so, sir.

MURA:
You do trust me, don’t you, Escalus?

ESCALUS:
Yes, sir. With my life.

MURA:
Then let us have no more craven talk. We answer to no greater authority than the judgement of history.

FX: THEY PROCEED THROUGH A CLANGING GATE, DOWN STEPS.

ESCALUS:
But, sir, we can’t enter the vault, not without – (the)

MURA:
- The correct authorisation card?

FX: AUTHORISATION CARD BEING SLOTTED INTO READER. BLEEPS AFFIRMATIVELY. HEAVY DOOR GRINDS OPEN. THEY ENTER.