The Red Lines Page

April 9, 2014

Reflections on Mirror

Filed under: Audios,Blake's 7,Mirror — Peter A @ 9:22 pm

My Blake’s 7 audio “Mirror” is published today. It’s the latest exciting episode in a full-cast audio series. You can hear a preview clip of it here.

I loved being part of a team of writers putting together this “Season B+” for Big Finish and B7 Media. I hope listeners are starting to spot the threads as each new episode comes out. I’ve particularly enjoyed the advance fan speculation about what’s in each story, based on titles, covers, cast lists, or the “blurbs” for each new instalment. But, just as with the original TV series, you can enjoy them as individual stories.

mirrorAs a bonus, each release also contains interviews with the cast and crew – and the interviews for “Mirror” features almost all of the regular cast. I was interviewed in the studio for this one, but my comments were left on the cutting room floor. At the time, I felt a bit coy or constrained about what to say because I wasn’t quite sure what I could reveal in advance.

There was one particular aspect of… let’s call it “nomenclature” that I did talk about, somewhat haltingly. Fortunately, there’s a Paul Darrow out-take in the interview track that sums it up in a delightful and much more succinct way than I did.

You can order “Mirror” from Big Finish here. I’d love to hear what you think of it. On reflection, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

March 9, 2014

I feel like a Newman

Filed under: Audios,drwho,Torchwood,writing — Peter A @ 2:02 pm

Big Finish has a customer survey running at the moment. It solicits opinions about all sorts of things, including which other spinoff series they could make. Participants get the chance to win a prize worth £250.

I like the idea of Torchwood audios, obviously. As I have prior history with that franchise, I would hope to be early in the queue for writing those – alphabetically speaking. Unless Dan Abnett isn’t busy at the time.

Mind you, it’s an outrage that Big Finish aren’t considering a spinoff series for An Adventure in Space and Time. I demand to hear further thrilling stories featuring Verity and Sydney (pictured here from their recent personal appearance at GallifreyOne). Steve Cole even photographed me discussing things with Sydney by the hotel pool.

20140309-140124.jpg
Everyone should write in to Big Finish! Pop pop pop over to their website immediately.

March 8, 2014

A handle on good design

Filed under: Articles,Grumbling,IBM — Peter A @ 7:51 pm

I recently reposted a photo on Twitter that I thought neatly encapsulated poor design.

Within a few days, this was retweeted hundreds of times. With the various modified and quoted versions of it, Terry Odell’s original photo has now been retweeted over a thousand times. It seems to have caught the imagination of many, and not just technical authors.

From http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/09/11/uk-fortis-tesco-idUKTRE58A19Y20090911

Credit: Reuters

Subsequently, Alexis Hale politely pointed out that the sign was “literally a joke from the Wayside School series.” Nevertheless, I still claim it as an example (deliberate or otherwise) of when documentation makes things worse — and when better design could avoid the need for documentation in the first place. Because obviously technical writers are like those staff in Tesco wearing a badge saying…

“Here to help”

I was walking through the airport, and noticed a man carrying two heavy suitcases through the arrivals terminal after passport control. I could tell they were heavy from the way he was struggling, and they’d got those orange warning labels on them (an example of simple, effective design).

Ref: http://www.flickr.com/photos/45339499@N00/

Credit: Philipp Bock (youMayCallMeSheep)

As I watched him grip the handles to drag his baggage towards the taxi rank, I saw he had this fabulous-looking watch on his wrist. “Oh yeah,” he said, “it’s very clever. It tells the time in all the countries that I do business. It gives me access to my e-mail, shows me my calendar, warns me about forthcoming meetings. It’s got a built-in stills camera and a phone with a little video screen. It’s got functions for recharging via kinetic energy and solar power. It checks my pulse and skin temperature and warns me when I might be ill. It plays music from all the albums I’ve stored on my home server. So it’s OK, I suppose.”

“OK?” I told him. “It sounds fantastic! But if you don’t mind me saying, you don’t seem very happy with it.”

“Well,” he said, hefting the two heavy suitcases, “look at all this documentation you need to carry round for it.”

When I first told that gag, the iPhone and Galaxy Gear were still Star Trek technology of the future. But those of us who remember early digital watches can still recall thinking, “There are only a couple of buttons, so how difficult can it be?” And then struggling to set the alarm. And subsequently struggling to deactivate the alarm when it went off.

Minimal interface isn’t a guarantee of simplicity. But designing a product to be easy to use, rather than creating a lot of documentation, is what will succeed in the marketplace. Good design makes use obvious, and behaves the way you expect, and so you avoid providing documentation that’s not absolutely necessary.

The smarter you are about avoiding the need for documentation, the smarter the documentation is that you end up producing.

And yet, when my mum got a new watch from a famous, very reputable brand not so long ago, the instructions for setting the date told her this:

Do not set day/date between 8:30pm and 5:00 am as day/date change cycle is in progress.

It’s an admission of design failure if one of the functions of your product can’t be used properly for 8½ hours of the day.

Walk up and confuse

All too often, an interface you expect to be “walk up and use” ends up just confusing. When I talk to technical authors, it may seem heretical to assert that no-one really wants to read product documentation. Not even technical authors.  Who honestly wakes up and says, “You know what, today I really fancy reading an instruction manual. I’d like nothing better than to study how to install and configure some database software.” 

You pick up an instruction manual because you’ve got stuck attempting to do something, or don’t know where to start when trying to achieve some task. You want to find that out as quickly as possible, and go back to what you were doing. It’s all about the task and not the product, and it definitely isn’t about the manual. I don’t think “I’d like to use the iPhone interface this afternoon,” I think “I want to listen to that track by The Doors, and maybe buy it.” (Yes, I am that old.)

iPhone

My first iPhone

The iPhone is an aspiration for all consumer products: it’s almost literally walk-up-and-use. Like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver – a multitude of uses, but the Doctor never has to fumble around for the instruction manual. On my iPhone, I can rapidly work out how scroll, open, close, cut, copy, paste etc. all work. And it’s only got a few buttons, and they do pretty basic things that can be simply explained.

Even more interesting, my experience is that most of the documentation for the “difficult” stuff is searchable online and not written by Apple.

 

Doors to manual

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b4/Panel_door.jpg

Doors don’t do documentation (credit: wikimedia)

The simplest things can be overcomplicated by documentation. You wouldn’t expect to get all this specification information about how to use a door. As Don Norman pointed out in his excellent book The Design of Everyday Things, a  well-designed door is literally walk-up-and-use:

  • It will have appropriate affordances – plates that invite you to push, and handles that look like they need you to pull, which tell you all you need to know.
  • Just one word of documentation is too much, especially when those two words are look as similar as PUSH and PULL.
  • If you disagree with that, then ask yourself how much you want to read and work out if you’re trying to operate a fire door in an emergency.

And yet we still encounter poorly designed doors. What hope do we have for easy-to-use software if we can’t do doors?

Hursley doors

IBM has a renewed focus on Design Thinking that is transforming the way software and solutions are created. And although office doors aren’t something IBM designs and builds, I like to use the example of doors at IBM Hursley (installed in the 1980s) as how not to design simple things things simply.

These doors are one of the first things our visiting clients encounter when they arrive, and one of the last things they use before they leave. In comparison with them, the self-flushing cisterns and soap dispensers in our on-site toilets are a miracle of modern technology.

All IBM buildings are badge-controlled for security. There are two ways to enter IBM Hursley from our Main Reception. The first question is: which set of doors to choose?

ReceptionArrows

There is a pair of doors to either side of the welcome desk. The receptionist or your IBM host can tell you which pair to choose, I suppose – though some visitors are from other IBM sites, and they do not need to “sign in” or speak to the receptionists. (You should do, even if just to say hello – they’re lovely. Not everyone does, but people are strange.)

Perhaps you decide to try and to work it out for yourself.

Reception doors

   More doors

When you approach your chosen set of doors, you’ll find there is some documentation:

  • Policy rules about having to wear a badge, and having to use your ID card in the door’s badge reader.
  • An image on the badge reader showing you how to orient your magstripe.
  • A red PUSH printed into the upper part of a long metal handle that looks like it’s designed to pull.
  • But there are also two metal plates (which stop the door swinging beyond the frame) that look like push plates.
  • And finally, because the latch tends to stick and you therefore need to “rattle” the door a bit to disengage it, there’s a further sign in a different font that tells you to “PULL and then PUSH door” with a sad little coda that says “thank you.”

DoorCloseUpArrows

Now you’ve decided which order to read these signs in, and chosen which of the two doors to use. You may have a confusing moment if someone comes through one of the doors, because they’re designed as unique “in” and “out” doors, like those for a restaurant kitchen. And depending whether you choose the left pair or the right pair, the “in” door is different. 

Once you get through the door, you’ll find yourself in a through corridor – and realise that it didn’t matter which pair of doors you chose, because both sets lead in here.

Corridor

On your way out, you will probably remember that it doesn’t matter which doors you choose for leaving the building. Unless you forget, or you came into the building via a different route. There’s no clear indication that these doors lead to Reception and the exit. Perhaps you’ll recognise the distinctive furniture through the non-opaque parts of the door.

But even if you do remember, the way you get out through the same pair of doors is different from the way you get in. That’s because you don’t need badge access to get into Reception, and so the sequence is:

  • Press a button, and wait for the light to go green
  • Choose the correct door, rattle the handle, and then push.

The way out

It will reassure you to know that this design was not the handiwork of the IBM documentation teams responsible for products, nor were the doors designed by IBM. Now that they are installed, it’s admittedly a bit harder to redesign and replace the doors. And perhaps those of us who have worked at IBM Hursley for a while have simply got used to them.

But then perhaps we’d assume that people would get used to knowing how to use stairs. Which is where this blog post started. And that’s even before we take into account that not everyone finds it easy to use stairs. 

Ref: http://blog.globalstreetart.com/post/56326649910/for-some-people-stairs-are-mountains-a-very

Source: Global Street Art Blog

February 3, 2014

GallifreyOne 2014

Filed under: Audios,Blake's 7,drwho,Novels,Sarah Jane Smith,Short fiction,writing — Peter A @ 12:42 am

GallifreyOne 2014I am delighted to have been invited once again to the fantastic GallifreyOne, the world’s largest and longest-running Doctor Who convention. There’s a sparkling array of major guests attending:

  • Doctors Colin Baker and Paul McGann
  • Companions Arthur Darvill, Billie Piper, Katy Manning, Nicola Bryant, Jean Marsh, Matthew Waterhouse, Deborah Watling, Velile Tshabalala and Frazer Hines
  • Writers Terrance Dicks, Paul Cornell, Jane Espenson, Phil Ford and Rob Shearman.
  • Guest stars  Tom Price, Gareth Thomas, Annette Badland, Tracey Childs and Stuart Milligan.
  • Production team members Derek Ritchie, Gary Russell and Dominic Glynn.
  • And loads more – check out the full list on the convention website

Quarter century

This is the silver nemesis anniversary of the convention. It with be my seventh visit to the event, so compared with many regular attendees I’m a bit of a dilettante.

I first went to The Eleventh Hour of GallifreyOne – which feels so long ago that it must predate the Time Lords mastering transmat technology, the universe was half its present size, and the GallifreyOne attendee count was only in the hundreds rather than the thousands who will turn up this year. Back then, the convention took place in a much smaller airport hotel, in Van Nuys. The BBC was unthinkably not making any new episodes of Doctor Who.

From gallifreyone.com

Nevertheless, there was still much to discuss about the 27 years of already-broadcast TV stories. It was a rare year that one of the Doctors did not turn up as a headline guest at the convention. But the only new Doctor Who being produced in those days was for the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, the Big Finish audio plays, and the Virgin (subsequently BBC Books) novels.

As a result, guests from the writing and production teams of those tie-in productions were invited to attend the convention. I was very pleased to go along to my first GallifreyOne convention in 2000. There were two Doctors in attendance (Peter Davison and Colin Baker) and along with me the tie-in guests included Justin Richards, Gary Russell, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Steve Cole, Paul Cornell, Dave Stone, Kate Orman, Jonathan Blum, Mike Tucker, Keith Topping, Bill Baggs and Gary Gillatt.

In subsequent years, I was at events at the Van Nuys hotel with David Howe, Stephen James Walker, Clayton Hickman, Lance Parkin, Lisa BowermanNev Fountain, Caroline Symcox, Lloyd Rose, David McIntee, Dale Smith, Paul Ebbs, Mark Wright, Jon de Burgh MillerNigel Fairs, Simon Bucher-Jones, Craig Hinton, Steve Lyons, Dave Owen and Nick Walters.

This first photo (above) from the 2000 event is from Alden Bates’s website, and shows Gary Gillatt, Steve Cole, Terrance Dicks, Gary Russell, Justin Richards, me, Mike Tucker and Paul Cornell.

Edit: Remote linking denied from tetrap.com for that photo, so I’ve replaced it with an alternative from the GallifreyOne website that shows the 2001 convention  (L-R, back:) Craig Hinton, unknown, unknown, Keith Topping, Paul Cornell, Shaun Lyon (Program Director), Nick Walters, Andrew Beech, and me; (L-R, front): Peter Lovelady and Justin Richards.

Past present

From gallifreyone.comThe turn-out at my first GallifreyOne fourteen years ago was just under 750 people. Whereas last year, just over 3,500 attended – and I suspect even more will be there this year. Like Doctor Who, the convention has grown hugely until it’s become something of a global phenomenon – I sometimes think I meet my UK friends at GallifreyOne more often than I do back home. And just like the TV series that it celebrates, the convention has not lost the charm and affection of its origins.

Of course, there’s a big focus on the current TV series. But the event still celebrates the whole fifty years of the series, and much more besides. So it’s especially nice in this celebratory year that some of the convention’s program of events remembers those tie-in productions that provided “new Who” in the years that the TV series was off-air, and when the GallifreyOne convention first welcomed us as guests. And indeed, once again welcomes some of us to be guests.

The second picture (right) from the 2001 event, The Twelfth Regeneration of GallifreyOne, shows Justin Richards, Steve Cole, Dave Owen, Keith Topping and me. This year is the first GallifreyOne for well over a decade that I have attended at the same time as Steve and Keith. I may still have that shirt. (I may even wear it.)

My schedule

I’m involved in a range of panels and signings this year. Here’s what I am signed up for at the moment:

Friday

  • 1:30 p.m. Kaffeeklatch. A discussion group, accompanied by Steve Cole. They may be taking a risk with this, because Steve and I aren’t particularly well-known for taking care of Gallifrey.
  • 2:30 p.m. Autograph alley, with Steve Cole, Paul Cornell and Keith Topping.

Saturday

  • 11 a.m.The Ancestor Cell Writing for characters you didn’t create. A panel with Deric Hughes, Christine Boylan, Tony Lee, Barbara Hambly and Jordan Rosenberg. A mix of TV writers, novelists, comics writers, and me.
  • 1 p.m. Autograph alley, with Steve Cole, Dominic Glynn, Rob Shearman, Tobe Hadoke and Keith Topping.
  • 3 p.m. Doctor Who – The Wilderness Years. Panel with Steve Cole, Terrance Dicks, Paul Cornell, Gary Russell, Keith Topping and Rob Shearman. Moderator Felicity Kusinitz will try to ensure we are well-behaved and say something interesting about the books and audios that made up the “new Who” between 1990 and 2004. Penalty points for anyone who uses the word “hiatus.”

Sunday

  • 11 a.m. Autograph alley, with Steve Cole, Richard Dinnick, Phil Ford, Gary Russell and Keith Topping.

All weekend

If you’re going to the convention, do drop by and say hello. I’m happy to talk about the Doctor Who things I’ve done, or Torchwood, Blake’s 7, Sarah Jane Adventures, Bernice Summerfield… audios, novels, short stories, talking books… or anything else.

My previous experience of the wireless connections at the convention hotel is that it was either (a) sporadic when free or (b) ruinously expensive otherwise. I’ll try to tweet occasionally, and maybe post some photos. The convention hashtag is #gally1 if you’re following along.

If you haven’t yet signed up to attend the convention, alas, it sold out long ago. But do try to get tickets for next year’s event. It is such a wonderful, warm, welcoming convention that you will have a fabulous time, no matter who the guests are that year. (PS: they’re always great.)

January 17, 2014

Talking to Big Finish

Big Finish Day 4Big Finish kindly invited me to participate in their event this weekend, Saturday 18th January, at the Copthorne Hotel Slough-Windsor. Guests include Paul McGann, Tom Chadbon, Simon Fisher-Becker, Pamela Salem, Andrew Smith, Michael Troughton, Peter Wyngarde, Julian Glover… ooh, there are lots of others, so check out the information about the event via this link.

The range discussions are about Counter Measures, The Avengers, and Sherlock Holmes, with other main discussions about acting for audio, sound design, and a main interview with Paul McGann and his son Jake.

I will be around with some of the other Big Finish writers to sign things, and talk to anyone who wants to ask questions or have a chat. So if you’re attending, I’ll be glad to say hello — and discuss any of the audios, short stories, or novels I’ve written for Big Finish. I’m not sure what, if anything, we’ll be saying on the day about the new full-cast Blake’s 7 audios.

All this reminds me that a while ago I did an interview with Kenny Smith as a contribution to his book The Big Finish Companion Volume 2. That was published in time for last year’s Big Finish Day, so now seems like a nice time to publish my version of the interview here — and encourage you to buy the book. Kenny was asking me about my audio The Four Doctors.

What was your original brief for The Four Doctors?

Big Finish originally asked me about doing a Doctor Who version of A Christmas Carol. The CD was coming out as a festive special for subscribers, and that was therefore quite a good proposal.

They were also quite keen that I kept the Doctors apart, and do something less obviously like previous multi-Doctor stories.

The other part of the brief was about a limit to the number of guest characters, and the amount of air time that we could afford for each of the four Doctors.

I enjoy a challenging brief, and sometimes what appear to be constraints actually turn out to inspire good ideas as you try to solve them.

Did the story have any working titles?

I liked the title “Reverse Engineering”. Looking back, I must have been bonkers to want to call it anything other than The Four Doctors, because that’s unambiguously what it’s about! Plus, it’s what will best advertise the audio. Plus, no-one had used the title before. So, what was I thinking?

Until quite late on, it was in four separate episodes. In fact, it was originally edited as four episodes, with each Doctor taking more of a lead in each. They combined it into one continuous narrative pretty much at the last minute. The episode titles were “Analysis, “Disassembly”, “Decompilation”, and “Reverse Engineering”.

What’s your first reaction when you’re given more than one Doctor to write about – delight, then horror?!

Definitely delight. I’d written an audio for Peter Davison (Key 2 Time 2: The Chaos Pool), but not for any of the other three Doctors. I’d done three novels for the Eighth Doctor, and short fiction featuring the Seventh. But this was my first chance to write anything for the Sixth.

How difficult was it to come up with a new spin on an old idea, by having a story with more than one Doctor, and also have to add in the Daleks?

Part of the brief was to keep them apart, for two reasons. One reason was the availability of the principal actors – you can record stuff separately and combine them later, but that’s a post-production complexity you may prefer to avoid. Another more important reason was to avoid retreading some of the sorts of “dandy/ clown/ fancypants/ scarecrow” dialogue. That’s quite amusing stuff, but it’s much more interesting to explore other things.The Four Doctors

My take on that was: don’t treat them as four separate people (who are really the same person) who interact with each other. Instead, treat them as the same person who interacts with another man, who has to work out that these four people are the same person. And then the fun for the audience is: we already know these four characters as the same person, and we can listen to the newcomer as he works that out.

In my script, the four Doctors work together over an extended period of time (from their perspective) because they are the same person, not because they happen to be in the same place at the same time. I had a variety of excuses about why the Doctor couldn’t meet himself in the story, with the crux being that distanced Fifth/Eighth conversation.

Having the Daleks is great. You can have lots of additional speaking parts for no extra cost, because the director is doing all the voices! I wanted the Daleks at the battle of Bajorika to have “old” voices, and my script suggested something closer to the voices from “Day of the Daleks”, albeit this ran the risk of giving Nick Briggs (a bit of a Dalek expert and purist) having an embolism.

Did you have any abortive ideas before settling on the final one?

After the Christmas Carol suggestion, I’d pondered doing something with the Doctor as Past, Present, and Future. And then I wondered about having the Doctor witness (but not interact with) the actions of his own past, present, and future – having a third party make the Doctor (as “Scrooge”) learning the error of his ways by witnessing his own actions. I also thought that was a bit Trial of a Time Lord.

But all that seemed a rather better fit for three rather than four Doctors. And so I chose the much better idea of having someone else travel through the Doctor’s time line… but in the reverse order to the way that he experienced it, because it’s a story about a Time Lord after all.

All of which turned out to be just as well because, subsequently, we learned that Steven Moffat’s first Christmas special for Matt Smith was inspired by A Christmas Carol. If we’d gone anywhere near that, the BBC would (quite understandably) have rejected the proposal.

I had a number of other ideas, especially for elements of the third section. But I’m going to keep those to myself, in case I can find a use for them in some other audio or novel!

How much fun did you have writing for each incarnation, and was it difficult to write the distinctive nuances for each incarnation?

I had the best time ever. Though it wasn’t straightforward.

I’d written for the Eighth Doctor before in three novels, and even provided a script for an audio story (Earth & Beyond: Bounty) that was Paul McGann’s first new performance as the Doctor after the TV Movie. So I thought I’d find his character would be easier to write for than he was.

Earth & BeyondThe novelists were able augment the TV Movie character through the BBC Books – at that stage, there was only that one story to go on. We had to think our way into how the character would have developed, without losing what made him recognisable from the TV Movie. And while the TV series was off the air, we could “steer” him a little ourselves. One of my favourite, albeit trivial, editorial notes when I wrote the novel Kursaal was from a copy editor asking whether the BBC was prepared to “commit to the idea” that the Doctor lost a tooth in the previous story and that it was slowly growing back.

Over a decade later, by the time I was writing The Four Doctors, the authentic voice of the Eighth Doctor was unambiguously the Big Finish version – honed through all of those other audios they’d done for him, plus Paul McGann’s performance of course.

As it was my first chance to write for Colin Baker, I think he was the most fun to do in The Four Doctors. Colin is a lovely chap – I’ve met him at a couple of conventions as a guest. He’s finally been done justice by the Big Finish audios, so I was especially pleased to be the latest contributor to that.

Fan geek question time. The Dalek Prime appeared in the John Peel novelisations and novels – is that the Black Dalek’s official designation in your mind?

I should hand in my Geek Card, I’m afraid. I had forgotten that Dalek Prime was in John’s books. I’d read them, of course, so perhaps it stuck in my mind. I’d intended it as a new designation, because the story is about the developmental stages of both the Daleks and the Jariden – and I’d incorporated the Special Weapons Dalek as an example of how the classic series had already done that. I couldn’t use something like the Supreme Dalek from the post-2005 series, because Big Finish doesn’t have a license for stuff from the post-2005 TV show. We even had a slightly surreal debate about whether we were allowed to have a Dalek saying “Elevate!” as it went up the stairs after the Doctor and Faraday, because that phrase was first used in Rob Shearman’s new series Dalek story.

And I admit that when Victory of the Daleks was broadcast, and featured the new Dalek Paradigm, I was a bit nervous that my story would be seen as too close to some of the elements of that.

Which one was the Black Dalek again? No here, look, I’ve torn my Geek Card in two. Take it.

The scene at the end is a nice touch – just when I thought we weren’t going to get them meeting up. Was this always planned, or did you ever consider not doing it, just to be different?

Vortex 57Thank you very much. I agree, it’s a nice touch, but it’s also a scene that I didn’t write. Either Nick Briggs or Alan Barnes inserted that  because they decided they wanted to have a “meet and greet” with the four Doctors after all. My version had some “across-the-timelines” parallel dialogue instead. I especially like the gag about the TARDIS decor, so perhaps I should pretend I wrote it after all. Yeah, I planned it all along! 

[Subsequently, Big Finish revealed in issue 57 of BF magazine "Vortex" that it was Nick. I think they lost confidence at the eleventh hour in their original idea that the Doctors should never meet.]

Any thoughts on the final play itself?

It sounds a bit immodest when you say how much you like stuff you’ve written. With an audio, the script is just the starting point – the foundations of the production. No matter how good an actor’s performance is, or how fine the music and sound effects, or how well it’s edited together by the director, a bad script will sink an audio. Yet without all those additional things, even a great script just remains text on a page – so I was really pleased with the end result.

I was a bit sorry that the final version wasn’t in four 15-minute episodes, as we’d originally planned. I’d quite like to have had the different theme tunes crashing in. And as a subscriber-only audio with short episodes it wouldn’t have needed cliffhanger reprises – instead, I had some cunning “Part One” reprises in “Part Four”. Nevertheless, you get well over an hour of adventure. Even those short episodes would have been about twenty minutes long, which is longer than some episodes of The Mind Robber.

There were sundry other changes that Big Finish made for the final version. For example, the Jariden were renamed – I’d called them the Jai-Gerbar, which I thought was a bit more unusual without being too hard to say. And Ulrik was originally called Vaterlaus, a name I thought would sound brutally good when the Daleks were shouting at him. But the Big Finish team are smart folk who know what will and won’t work on audio, so I am entirely phlegmatic about the changes, which were all in the service of a better audio play.

And that’s the nature of a collaborative project like this. For example, in the third section it was originally a Dalek that escorted Ulrik to his cell, and who was subsequently overpowered by him and escorted to the roof to meet the Doctor. Script editor Alan Barnes didn’t like that, because he thought it implausible that Daleks would set up a base where they had to go up-and-down stairs and open cellar doors. He thought I should set those scenes in a Dalek ship near the battle of Bajorika. I said I preferred the different “soundscape” of a mansion, and liked the literal encroachment of the Daleks onto Jariden property. Plus it meant I could place the Doctor up on the mansion roof observing the battle, which would be less plausible if he was sitting atop a Dalek saucer. So Alan said “why not change the Dalek into a Roboman escort”, and then developed that into “why not say the Roboman is Ulrik’s grandfather” (whose mansion I had already decided it was, and whose relationship I’d already established in “Part One”).

That was great, because then I could make the Roboman part of the Jariden’s reverse engineering of the Special Weapons Dalek technology – so that back on the Vault of Stellar Curios in “Part Four”, Ulrik realises that what he was pursuing back in “Part One” is actually the grandfather he was also disparaging in “Part One” but who he set free from the Daleks in “Part Three”. Plus, in “Part Four” after the Roboman says “Awaiting Orders, Colonel Ulrik”, there’s a very straightforward line of dialogue that David Bamber delivers beautifully as he sets the creature on his enemies: “Kill the Daleks, Grandfather. Kill them all.” And that all started from a discussion about whether Daleks could plausibly unbolt a cellar door.

When it comes down to it, how many people get a chance to write a Big Finish audio, let alone one with the Daleks in it, let alone one with four Doctors? It was a wonderful experience, and I’m very proud of the final version.

January 12, 2014

Here’s one I saved earlier

Filed under: Blake's 7 — Peter A @ 4:56 pm

These days, enthusiastic viewers of the BBC’s Blue Peter programme can learn from Jedward how to make a ring-pull bracelet from drinks cans. But back in 1978, I learned from Lesley Judd how to make a Liberator teleport bracelet from drinks bottles.

Better yet, the BBC posted out free instruction sheets to me and me and lots of other Blake’s 7 fans. And in a recent clear-out, I found them again. So here they are.

Instruction sheet 1 Instruction sheet 2 Instruction sheet 3

And if you prefer to have Lesley Judd explain the step-by-step instructions, here she is on YouTube:

December 21, 2013

Gauda Prime day

Filed under: Articles,Blake's 7 — Peter A @ 7:27 pm

Today is Gauda Prime Day 2013. It’s the anniversary of the first broadcast of “Blake,” the finale to season D of Blake’s 7 over three decades ago. I wrote in a previous blog post about how I got to see that episode being recorded at BBC Television Centre in 1981. This new post follows on from that — as my pals Peter, Tony and I left the studio floor and were shown by producer Vere Lorrimer up a flight of metal steps, not unlike a fire escape outside a building, and to the production gallery.

The production gallery

Title caption for BlakeEn route, we saw a small room where images from the studio cameras were monitored to check the quality of all the images being recorded, and where adjustments could be made if necessary. Beyond this was the main production gallery where the director, vision mixer, and director’s assistant behind a further row of TV monitors and control panels that would put the Scorpio to shame. A large glass window in front of that overlooked the studio, though the lighting rig and the backs of various sets made it impossible to see the whole of the studio. They relied on monitor images, from the TV cameras on the studio floor, to see what was happening. Once the recording started, it was disorienting to see the erratic, abrupt images on the smaller monochrome monitors relayed the feeds as the cameras moved into position between shots. The principal image, the one that would be recorded “as live,” was larger and in colour.

The final rooms we were shown through were the sound mixing area and a smaller space where the computer graphics were generated for the in-studio display screens.

For the recording, we were allowed to sit in the Producer’s both. This contained a TV screen that displayed the image being recorded, and also an audio feed that combined the sound from on-set and from the director in the production gallery. This meant we could chat to each other as things went on, while not disturbing the production team who were the other side of the glass window from us, only four feet away. Vere Lorrimer left us to watch the rest of the studio session, while he returned to the production gallery and his seat behind director Mary Ridge.

Occasionally, the production associate Frank Pendlebury would drop in to use the phone on the desk in front of us. He seemed to be quite concerned about some missing videos. Every time he came in, he was polite and apologetic about disturbing us. This was characteristic of the courtesy we were shown by everyone at the BBC during our visit.

As we watched the continuous output on our TV monitor, we saw the first scene of the session being recorded. This was the one in the forest hut, where Vila, Dayna and Soolin take refuge for the night.

Vere Lorrimer had warned us that the necessity to try scenes over and over again might seem boring. But with so much to see as the programme progressed, whether scenes actually being played or the director correcting and adjusting little items, there never seemed to be a dull moment. We could see and hear everything that director Mary Ridge could see and hear, even between scenes as lights were altered and cameras focused and refocused on the actors.

The forest hut

Soolin, Dayna, and Vila break into the abandoned forest hutAn effects shot explodes in the wall next to Avon (Paul Darrow)Vila, Dayna and Soolin burst into the hut, but something is not quite right with their entry, and Mary Ridge has the scene done twice again. each time, the planks have to be put back over the door, and then crashed down as the trio smash their way in. Before this, however, there is a slow circular look by one camera around the stove so that we can see the hut and appreciate the quietness of the scene before their arrival. Then, when finally in at the door, Glynis Barber (Soolin) is not visible because the “shafts” created by the lighting people to give the impression of a broken roof do not illuminate her face.  She is realigned, and the scene is done again.

Michael Keating (Vila) moves into the room as he complains, and the camera follows him around the stove. Josette Simon (Dayna) is picked up

he sounds of the flyer was added in post-production) there is a zoom to the doorway where the lights are dancing around. by another camera, and moves towards Vila and delivers her lines. The camera stops with Soolin as Dayna passes, then cuts to Vila. There’s a series of cuts between speakers as Dayna goes to the doorway, and back to Vila as he hears a noise. The women are seen at the dorway, and then as lights start to illuminate the broken hut (t

The women take one side of the door each, and Vila retreats to the back of the hut. When the lights have gone, the focus is on Dayna and Solin — who find that Vila is hidden beneath the covers.

Then it’s back to the less hurried direction of a conversation as Dayna and Vila argue, and Soolin speaks her penultimate line (“you have to assume everyone is out to get you). We cut to Vila grinning (“I always assume that, wherever I go”), then Soolin’s final line (“The difference is, on gauda Prime, you’ll be right”) and finally back to an unhappy Vila.

The advantage of being able to see the continuous output and all the other monitors is that we could see the various other shots being set up, in the knowledge that we’d be able to see the final version on TV and were thus “missing” nothing.

There was a subsequent scene in the hut. This was set up by “lighting” the prop stove with a red lamp inside it, and bringing Michael Keating a blanket for Vila to wrap himself in. All the while, production manager Henry Foster on the studio floor with the actors relayed the instructions from Mary Ridge. He was very recognisable in his navy blue jumper with HENRY in colourful capitals on the front.

Avon has rescued Vila... and Orac

In this scene, the bounty hunters surprise Vila, and Avon bounds in to the rescue. It was a chance for us to admire Mary Ridge’s direction, as the number of different shots and “follow-ons” were set in motion. In the gallery, to her left, sat the director’s assistant Winifred Hopkins, calling e shot numbers as the director said “cut” to cue each camera change for the vision mixer.

The guns used in most of the scenes we saw could only fire one shot without having to be reset by the special effects team. So when rehearsing a scene ahead of a recording, the actors said “bang” rather than use up the prop charge. And if a second shot was required from the same gun, the actor said “bang” for the second or subsequent one. The feeble fizz of a prop discharging was replaced in post production with an effects sound. Avon (Paul Darrow) needed to kill two bounty hunters in this scene, fore example. A further effects requirement was for a charge in the set itself, when one of the bounty hunters shots at Avon but only hits the wall.

In the scene, Vila is surprised by the hunters, who prepare (rather unconvincingly, we thought) to bash Soolin and Dayna who were still sleeping. Avon comes in and disposes of one hunter, who falls down quietly. The other is more belligerent, shoots back, and is then shot. At this point, the extras had to “die” again, as their death cries had been disappointingly muted. On cue, they groaned melodramatically and (although not being recorded in vision) clutched at their stomachs. “They do try hard,” observed Mary Ridge as an aside, before telling Henry Foster to ask one for another groan. The extra dutifully provided a expiring groan. “Tell him he died beautifully,” said Mary.

The rest of the scene was then recorded, into which Avon’s recovery of Orac (on film) would subsequently be inserted.

While they set up the next sequence, we were wondering (like Vila) whether Tarrant was dead. Tony Murray was never a great Tarrant fan — despite having being on a previous set visit to see “Death-Watch” recorded, and thus having twice the Tarrant for his troubles on that occasion. So Tony was not-so-secretly relishing the thought that Tarrant had already been killed.

Blake on film

Blake on filmAs the set for the s the tracking gallery was readied for use, we were able to glimpse some of the film work on a monitor. The images consisted of Blake (Gareth Thomas) chatting with a small, young woman. He held her at gunpoint, killed some men… It was an odd sequence to see, because it was edited together in a final form but we had to guess at what was happening because the film sequence was silent. And it slowly dawned on us that Blake had a remarkable scar across his left eye.

Not a good idea

At this point, Vere Lorrimer dropped in again to suggest that we grab something to eat. So we went down to a snack bar and bought coffee and biscuits (the student idea of a nourishing meal). I phoned the Marvel office, in the hope of reaching Stewart Wales (the editor of Blake’7 Monthly who we had failed to meet earlier in the day). This was in the days before mobile phones, so it meant feeding ten pence pieces into a pay phone half-concealed with a plastic sound-muffling cowl. Alas, Stewart was still in his conference meeting, and so we returned to the Producer’s booth.

Our whole trip had been set up by Vere Lorrimer as a courtesy to Blake’s 7 Monthly, for whom we were hoping to provide the same kind of writing services that our friend Jeremy Bentham had been doing so admirably for the longer-established Doctor Who Monthly. When he heard that we’d been unable to reach Stewart by phone, Vere Lorrimer thoughtfully arranged for us to meet Ken Armstrong, a photographer working for Marvel who was in the studio that day taking photographs of the episode.

We had a chat with Ken about the ideas we had prepared for Stewart Wales. We thought we might write detailed synopses of the episodes. “Not a good idea,” said Ken. We suggested we could review stories. “Not a good idea,” said Ken. Write comic strips? “Not a good idea,” said Ken. All our finely wrought creative ideas seemed to appeal to him as much as if we had presented him with a cup of cold vomit. Everything was “Not a good idea.” He may as well have had a card printed with those four words on it.

Nevertheless, Ken did have some ideas about what we might do. We could provide news on fan activities and fanzines. And we should try to make sure that the door didn’t whack us on the arse as we left. He didn’t say that last bit, but that was the impression we got. (I’m sure he’s a really lovely chap, and obviously to suggest otherwise is not a good idea.)

Writing for "Blake's 7 Monthly" - not a good idea, apparently.Thus we saw  before us, in Ken, an insurmountable obstacle to contributing anything interesting or meaningful to Blake’s 7 Monthly. It wasn’t at all the way we thought we had already been able to excite the editor’s attention — and earned a trip to the BBC Television Centre in preparation for that. I suppose, to be fair to Ken, he did write for the magazine, and may even have been deputy editor. So he probably saw before him, in us, three spotty oiks who wanted to pinch all his work on the publication.

Or maybe he’d already seen the writing on the wall, because of the events in this episode, “Blake.” Because while making our phone call and eating our biscuits in the coffee area, we had seen a group of extras dressed in Federation Trooper costumes. But not yet made the connection.

More about that in my next blog about this studio visit.

December 20, 2013

The Ancestor Cell

Filed under: Ancestor Cell,drwho,Novels,writing — Peter A @ 12:55 am

My first (and so far only) co-authored novel was published by BBC Worldwide in July 2000 (delayed until April 2001 in US), ISBN: 0-563-53809-0

Cover: The Ancestor CellWhen BBC Books editor Steve Cole left BBC Worldwide, he had felt that there were a variety of “loose ends” in the continuing Eighth Doctor stories that could be tied up. Steve and I had both written novels as part of the recent story arc featuring Compassion (I wrote Frontier Worlds and Steve wrote Parallel 59 with Natalie Dallaire—and I did the structural edit on Steve’s novel).

We had both just started new full-time day jobs, and Steve was writing several Doctor Who audio stories for Big Finish Productions, so we agreed to work on a book proposal together – almost entirely by e-mail! New BBC Books range consultant Justin Richards also had clear ideas about how he wanted the series to develop in the second half of 2000, and briefed us on some things he wanted resolved in the book. We pitched our revised proposal to Justin and BBC Worldwide’s Ben Dunn, and it was accepted.

The book was published in July 2000 in the UK, though some US distribution was delayed until mid-2001. Nevertheless, The Ancestor Cell was one of the fastest-selling BBC Doctor Who books on amazon.co.uk, and to date is my biggest-selling Doctor Who novel by some margin.It features in the Top 20 sales ranking on Amazon, and in the SFX magazine readers’ poll it was in the top ten of the category “Best SF/Fantasy novelisation or TV tie-in novel 2000.”

You can read an article from the BBC’s Monthly Telepress. That newsletter also published “tasters” in the form of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. I’ve also provided an unpublished scene from the novel.

When the book was published, reviews ranged from wild enthusiasm to total outrage. You can also read my summary of several dozen original reviews from the time of publication.

Steve Cole and I took part in a unique Q&A about The Ancestor Cell at the GallifreyOne convention in Los Angeles, February 2001. If you couldn’t attend that, you can instead read the Top Ten questions that people ask me via e-mail, and a short interview I did with Doctor Who Magazine.

The Ancestor Cell: interview

Filed under: Ancestor Cell,drwho,Novels,writing — Peter A @ 12:55 am

Cover: The Ancestor CellThis page is one of several on this site about my novel The Ancestor Cell. They are all linked from this main blog post here.

Steve Cole and I answered a number of questions for Doctor Who Magazine. Vanessa Bishop then wrote these up into the “Talking Books” item that accompanied her review of The Ancestor Cell. Here are my answers to the original questions.

Talking Books

Vanessa Bishop: Was there always a plan for one final book that would ‘tidy up’ the loose ends of the story arc?

Peter Anghelides: “Final” is a bit of a worrying word, isn’t it? We want people to see each book as a “stepping on” rather than a “getting off” point. Doctor Who is constantly developing, so I’m not sure I’d want to tidy everything up. Even shows like “Genesis of the Daleks”, which purport to provide answers and closure, actually open things up more because fans love to speculate—no doubt they’ll spot more dangly bits in The Ancestor Cell. At least we haven’t sunk Atlantis again.

What difficulties did you encounter in having so many unfinished plotlines to explain?

I didn’t think there were all that many. Each time Steve and I bounced e-mail at each other when working on the outline, we japingly added another thing we wanted to get out of the book. We quickly ran into essential items such as “kitchen sink”, “huge advance on royalties”, and “world peace”. Sadly, we only got the first of those, I think. In the end, it’s more important to tell a compelling story that will grip a casual reader than pedantically to dot every i and cross every t.

Did you feel at all intimidated by the baggage that Time Lords and Gallifrey always bring?

We adopted a pick’n’mix approach. Obviously we have a movie-scale location and effects budget, so why be restricted by TV Gallifrey two pastel corridors and a polystyrene fountain? Likewise, we weren’t obliged to reference every Gallifrey story ever told. We ended up removing far more dull, gratuitous continuity references than we left in. And we added some more of our own, because it was more fun to develop Gallifrey. (No doubt, some people will say we bulldozed it instead.)

Of which aspects of The Ancestor Cell are you most proud?

It’s the first thing I’ve co-authored, and it was great fun to do. I can exclusively reveal to you our approach for dividing the writing chores: I wrote all the odd pages. And Steve wrote all the very odd pages.

What drove you to such extreme measures at the end of the book?

Steve made me do it. He kidnapped my children, and threatened to make them watch “The Happiness Patrol”. Besides, as the book series is undergoing some exciting changes later this year, we wanted to do something memorable in this one.

As a story arc contributor, do you feel, in retrospect, that The Ancestor Cell’s explanations should have been given within the arc itself?

That would have baffled those readers who don’t collect the whole series. Most of the explanations are derived from clues in the other books, but we wanted there to be some surprises too.

What do you feel are the successes of the story arc?

People are talking about the book series again, not just individual books. Yet you can read most of the books as an independent novel. Regular readers get a bonus for their loyalty, more satisfying than “buy six get one free”. Highlights of the last year’s books for me are the regular cast: the Doctor coming back to centre stage; Fitz finding his voice; a dangerous new companion in Compassion; and the clockwork canary, of course, which makes a startling reappearance in The Ancestor Cell.

The Ancestor Cell: top ten

Filed under: Ancestor Cell,drwho,Novels,writing — Peter A @ 12:54 am

Cover: The Ancestor CellThis page is one of several on this site about my novel The Ancestor Cell. They are all linked from this main blog post here.

I wrote this short article for the Online Ratings Guide, where it was first published in November 2000. You may even find answers to some of the questions elsewhere on my web site.

Top Ten Questions about The Ancestor Cell that people sent me

I have received more e-mail correspondence about The Ancestor Cell than about all the other Doctor Who stuff I’ve written combined. Most of the e-mail is very positive, and most notes also contain questions about the contents of the book, its writing, and the reaction to it since publication

Because I feel that my books should stand or fall on the published version, I’ve been reluctant to provide a kind of Cole’s Notes (aha… do you see what I did there?) for the book by answering specific questions. However, for your delectation and delight, and allowing for some conflation of similar ones, here is my list of “Top Ten Questions about The Ancestor Cell that people send to Peter Anghelides”.

10. When are you going to update your web site to include the book?

9. Who was the Enemy/Grandfather Paradox/Romana/Father Kreiner originally?

8. What do you think of Lawrence Miles’s review/interview/Interference/Alien Bodies/writing, and what has he told you personally about the book?

7. Where was K-9/ Leela/ Andred/ Rassilon/ Engin/ Eye of Harmony/ BabyDoc/ Looms/ Master/ Dark Tower/ Rassilon/ …?

6. Is the book’s plot impossible because it’s based on a paradox?

5. Your book’s wonderful/terrible/mediocre—how did it get commissioned?

4. Why did/didn’t you use/ripoff/avoid/traduce/obliterate Miles’s/ Platt’s/ Cornell’s/ Russell’s/ Parkin’s/ MIB’s/ CE3K’s/ STNG’s/ B5’s ideas for closing/ opening/ resolving/ avoiding/ confusing/ ignoring the arc instead of devising your own?

3. Which parts did Steve Cole write and which did you write?

2. I’ve written a Doctor Who novel—will you read it and tell me how to get it published?

And the number one question that I am asked about The Ancestor Cell…

1.    Who survives?

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