The Red Lines Page

July 12, 2014

Hursley FM competition

Filed under: Audios,Technology,Warship,writing — Peter A @ 9:24 pm

Peter A:

We have a winner! I will contact them shortly.

Originally posted on The Red Lines Page:

Script for WarshipAfter months of negotiation with my agent, I agreed terms with http://hursleyfm.comfor a podcast interview. Oh, all right then, they e-mailed me at work last Wednesday, and I said yes straight away.

On Friday, I made my way to their studio (spoilers: an office in Hursley D Block) and had a lovely chat with Dr Adrian, Jonny Mac, and Mr Jezzalinko. We discussed technology, my work at IBM, and my various bits of genre writing over the years. And, yes, they really are called that.

Hursley FM microphoneHursley FM is a podcast and community about technology, inspired by the people at the biggest software development laboratory in Europe. By a happy coincidence, it’s somewhere I’ve worked for nearly twenty years.

As you can see from my photo, the studio looks exactly like the podcast illustration.

It’s rare that my various worlds coincide like this. So to acknowledge that, and also encourage people to…

View original 139 more words

It’s just a machine

Filed under: Audios,Blake's 7,Mirror,writing — Peter A @ 7:45 pm

Orac and crew on the Liberator flight deckInterviewed by Big Finish about the scripts for their Blake’s 7 audios, Paul Darrow commented that sometimes we have Avon describing the computers as “he” rather than “it.” And because that wasn’t typical of the character, he asked for it to be changed. Which is true. A bit.

At the end of my story Mirror, Avon and Blake both refer to Orac as “he.”

Blake: Orac teleported me back to Liberator.

Avon: I know. He teleported me first remember?

I think that  having any character refer to Orac or Zen as “it” rather than “he” is much more emphatic, and therefore “making a point.”  Dialogue drives an audio script. When I’m writing mine, I try to avoid anything that sounds unnatural or awkward or contrived. But I also know that people (including Paul Darrow) think that Avon doesn’t tend to refer to Orac as “he.”

So my preference is to avoid having Avon use either “he” or “it” when referring to Orac, and thus just write around the decision about which to use. Sometimes it’s going to be awkward to have Avon repeatedly referring to Orac as “Orac” in a conversation with another character. And having him call Orac “it” is a bit emphatic, unless Avon’s making a point about the computer. And on those occasions, I don’t shy away from letting Avon say “he” — especially if it is cued by another character saying “he.”  In the example above, “Orac teleported me first, remember?” would sound odd after Blake’s line. And “It teleported me first, remember?” would be an unusual emphasis for the scene.

But is it true to the original TV series? We pride ourselves in the Big Finish writing team that we’re all huge fans of the show, and getting the characters and story continuity right is important to us. I read through all the original scripts of the audio series to review continuity references. So, does Avon really never call Orac “he” on the telly?

Well, here’s a scene from the story that first introduces the computer, the eponymous episode Orac.Orac title caption

Orac: Demonstrate as a command is insufficient.

Gan: What does he mean?

Avon: He means, like Zen, that he requires specific instructions.

Twice in one sentence! What is more, it’s not something that Avon subsequently “grows out of” because here he is doing it again as late as in Games in Season D:Games title caption

Avon: If Orac is going to get any information out of that machine, this is the way he’s going to do it.

Soolin: Who’s winning?

Orac: We’ve both made sacrifices.

Avon: He means that Gambit is.

Orac: A temporary advantage.

Avon: To an inferior computer?

Orac: Which merely disguises my long-term strategy.

Avon: Let’s forget your ego for the moment.

Throughout the TV series, Avon is more likely to engage in banter with Orac than with Zen, or to ponder his/its motivations. He even acknowledges, as we see in that scene from Games, that Orac has an ego. That makes Avon’s very first use of “he” in the episode Orac  even more interesting, because he says it in the phrase “like Zen, he…” which draws a comparison between the two of them, despite using “he” rather than “it.” And yet elsewhere in Season A, specifically in Cygnus Alpha and Duel, Avon is much more emphatic about Zen being an “it”, not a “he.” He states explicitly: “It’s just a machine.”

Conversely, we know characters like Gan and Vila refer to computers as “he” — whether Orac or Zen or Slave. And yet there is this interesting dialogue exchange in Shadow (Season B).Shadow title caption

Hanna: This is silly. It’s just a machine.

Vila: Of course it is. If it wasn’t so expensive I’d kick it to pieces.

Bek: Yes. If it didn’t bite.

Gan: Avon’ll fix it when he gets back.

The context is that they are discussing Orac in front of visitors, Hanna and Bek, who refer to Orac as “it” rather than “he” from the outset. The dialogue flows naturally, and logically, when Vila and Gan use “it.” And it works thematically, too,  distancing Orac from us and the crew in the context of his/its behaviour during the episode.

There we are, then. I think that there should be occasions in the audios when Avon chooses to call Orac “he” rather than “it.” That is the case for my scene in Mirror. And it also fits in consciously with a theme of the audio series. But to find out more about that, you should buy the CDs and listen to them.

Blake's 7: Mirror

June 14, 2014

Rainy Days in Cardiff

Filed under: Another Life,Grumbling,Novels,Torchwood — Peter A @ 11:03 am

Torchwood - Esős napok CardiffbanMy Torchwood novel Another Life was translated into Hungarian, and apparently published in 2010. I was pondering why I hadn’t seen a copy. I asked my publisher,  and they’re now puzzling about it, too.

I decided the best way to get a copy (and prove it exists) was to order it. From Hungary, obviously. The price looks a bit steep, until you see that it’s in Hungarian forints, and work out that 2,490 ft converts to about £6.50.

The Hungarian title is Torchwood – Esős napok Cardiffban. That translates back into English as Torchwood – Rainy Days in Cardiff. I hope that will prove to have been such an appealing title that the book has simply flown off the shelves in Csongrád and Bács-Kiskun. And I will not discover that my recent order has merely doubled sales in Eastern Europe.

audioTWnewIn related news: John Barrowman, who read the audio version of my novel, has become an MBE. This is splendid news. I’m not suggesting that my audio had any particular effect on his eligibility. Nor that it will unduly influence sales of the novel in Hungary – though anyone analysing the stats this week in Budapest may notice an unexpected uptick in overseas sales to the UK.

 

June 1, 2014

Hursley FM competition

Filed under: Audios,Blake's 7,drwho,Torchwood,Warship,writing — Peter A @ 8:41 pm

Script for WarshipAfter months of negotiation with my agent, I agreed terms with http://hursleyfm.com for a podcast interview. Oh, all right then, they e-mailed me at work last Wednesday, and I said yes straight away.

On Friday, I made my way to their studio (spoilers: an office in Hursley D Block) and had a lovely chat with Dr Adrian, Jonny Mac, and Mr Jezzalinko. We discussed technology, my work at IBM, and my various bits of genre writing over the years. And, yes, they really are called that.

Hursley FM microphoneHursley FM is a podcast and community about technology, inspired by the people at the biggest software development laboratory in Europe. By a happy coincidence, it’s somewhere I’ve worked for nearly twenty years.

As you can see from my photo, the studio looks exactly like the podcast illustration.

It’s rare that my various worlds coincide like this. So to acknowledge that, and also encourage people to tune in to the Hursley FM podcasts, here’s a competition. With a modest prize.

The prize is: a copy of the studio script for my audio drama Blake’s 7: Warship, signed by me. And maybe also signed by Dr Adrian, Jonny Mac, and Mr Jezzalinko, too.

The question is: in the podcast, we talk about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, about how Tom Baker is one of my favourite Doctors, and also about the future of technical writing. What word (that I use in the podcast) connects those three things?

How to enter: e-mail me at the contact address on this website. At the end of this month, I’ll pick a winner from all correct entries. Tie-breaker, in the event I decide one’s needed, is that you complete the following sentence: Mr Jezzalinko could be a Doctor Who villain because…”

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:

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