The Doctor Who Blogs

Ocean in the Sky

1979, London, England, Super8 film format, colour, sound, 75 minutes long.

Ocean in the Sky is the great lost epic fan film.  It’s not the earliest documented fan film – that honour goes to Kevin Davies ‘Doctor Hoo’ a three minute animated short from 1977.  Before that there’s a rumour of  a fan film called ‘Son of Doctor Who’ from the late sixties or early seventies.   But Ocean stands out as a milestone for the sheer level of ambition – 75 minutes, as long as a serial or movie feature, and for the ambition of the production, featuring Daleks, monsters, genuine actors, special effects, and as many as fifty people involved in the production.

So far as we can determine, it was shown in its entirety, only a single time, in 1979.
Ocean in the Sky was the brainchild of Marc Sinclair, then a teenager, whose parents were well off enough to own a high end Super8 millimeter film camera and accessories.   Sinclair appears to have been quite well off, there’s a report of him visiting at Terry Nation’s home and hanging out with his Daleks.  In the early 70’s, he bought a Dalek and a Police Box shell at Elstree Studios and had them refurbished.

Sinclair, a Doctor Who fan, started making Doctor Who fan films with his friends. Early titles included Threat of the Leviathans and the Destructors.  From clips, these seem to be short, rough productions, perhaps a few minutes long, and what you’d expect from kids playing in the basement.   Based in London, Sinclair was at the heart of Doctor Who fandom of the day. These were the glory days of Tom Baker, when Doctor Who was not just a cult item, but a popular success, and Baker an iconic personality. Back then, the series ran six months at a time.

This was also the time of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, formed in May, 1976. There had been previous fan clubs, but these had been local. This was an ambitious group, lead by an Executive Committee or Board, and publishing a regular fanzine, Tardis. DWAS won recognition or approval from the BBC. With these credentials, membership grew to as many as a thousand, with members as far away as Canada, Australia and the United States.   As the recognized ‘official’ fan club, they organized the first official Doctor Who Convention at Battersea.

On the strength of his  of his previous fan films, his interest in film and live production, and the fact that his family owned a super8 sound equipped movie camera, Marc Sinclair ended up as head of the DWAS Drama Department around 1977. He may well have been the entirety of the department. I’m guessing a bit here.

DWAS minutes suggest that Marc was a bit tumultuous and perhaps hard to get along with. With typical British understatement, there’s a section of the DWAS newsletter that wryly notes that Marc himself was a source of the some of the drama. That seems unkind to me. Fans generally have no shortage of drama. As a whole, we’re a socially inept bunch with thin skins and a deep need for affirmation.

Whatever the case, by 1977, Marc Sinclair and his camera were in DWAS, and DWAS behind him, and both a pool of volunteers and an actual venue of fans, Marc Sinclair, together with Owen Tudor, a regular writer for the Tardis fanzine, conceived a difficult and ambitious project: Ocean in the Sky, an actual feature length, 75 minute long, Doctor Who Fan Film.   How  difficult and ambitious?

Consider that they were working with Super8 film. A Super8 cartridge will give you three minutes of running time. Assuming that they simply shot cartridge after cartridge for a series of two or three minute scenes and spliced them together without edits, Ocean in the Sky would have taken 23 cartridges of Super8.

But there’s evidence that they were considerably more ambitious than that, so I estimate, depending on whether they did multiple takes, how many takes, how much effects work, that they might well have gone through anywhere from 30 to 100 cartridges, minimum. Or hundreds of cartridges, at the upper end of complexity and ambition..

Even exhibiting something like this it would be a challenge – Super8 film reels for longer lengths ran either 15 to 23 minutes. At 75 minutes, there would have to have been at least three changes of reel, perhaps as many as five.  Unless they had two super8 projectors keyed up to run side by side and switch back and forth, at the end of each reel, there would have to be a laborious process of removing the old reel, securing it properly, and threading a new reel, ready to go – perhaps an awkward five or six minute intermission between each reel. This was going to make it very difficult to exhibit.

As I said, this speaks to an astonishing level of ambition and dedication. And for that reason, I give Sinclair a pass. People may have found him difficult, but that’s what it takes.  Basically, you need to be a bit driven and focused and off the beaten path to pull something like this off. There has to be a level of drive and stubbornness that actually gets things done.   Far less ambitious films and fan films fell by the wayside as less driven people wandered off or found more interesting things to do. Film production, any kind of film production is long, hard and complicated, a sisyphean journey of endless steps. Sinclair and his circle of friends persevered across two years, and he got it done.  That is to be respected.

Production began approximately September of 1977. In DWAS Bulletins, it’s mentioned as being roughly concurrent with the shoot for Underworld, which aired in December 1977/January 1978.

The story, what we know of it from personal communication with Marc Sinclair, involved Daleks at a base on Mars, attempting to invade the Earth through a blue portal in space, thus the title ‘Ocean in the Sky.’
A newspaper article posted by Richard Bignell elsewhere refers to multiple ‘blue holes’, and monsters called ‘Ancholi’ and assorted ghouls. Accompanying pictures depict gauze draped ghostly figures attacking or chasing the Doctor. One set of pictures shows the Doctor fleeing a tentacled columnar thing that might have been an Ancholi, or perhaps an Emperor Dalek.

The Dalek Mars base was shown, by using, according to Sinclair,  “a hospital corridor on a model set.” I’m not sure what that means, but I assume it was a miniature.

The ‘stars’ were two Daleks, nicknamed ‘Fred’ and ‘George’. There’s a rumour that these might have been Daleks from one of the Peter Cushing movies. But then again, those movies were more than ten years prior, so I’m skeptical of that provenance, I simply find it hard to believe that any of the Cushing Daleks were still floating around. By that time, they would have either fallen apart, been destroyed or were jealously guarded by collectors.

Part of that rumour may have come from Marc’s own contact with Terry Nation’s Daleks. Nation had four Daleks from the second Cushing movie as his personal trophies. As described in the Dalek props history site: “In the summer of 1974 one lucky fan, Marc Sinclair, who lived locally to Terry Nation, was given a treat when he was invited to tea with his family and Matron from his school at the Nation home in Lynsted. Although Nation was away on business, Marc recalls having tea with his wife Kate and meeting Dalek AARUII 12-9 and Dalek AARUII 9-11. Both were kept in an outhouse in a walled off part of the garden and both were starting to look well worn. Marc was able to play with the Daleks all afternoon and remembers the lights on Dalek AARUII 12-9 were still working.” Despite this contact, it seems unlikely that Nation would have sold or surrendered any of his props to a teenager.

On the other hand, these might possibly have been the Daleks from the Seven Keys to Doomsday stage play from 1974. These were modeled on the Cushing versions, but had key differences. The timing to acquire these certainly works better.  Or they may simply have been builds from  enthusiasts – in November, 1973, the Radio Times had published (inaccurate) Dalek Blueprints, and had spurred a wave of enthusiastic amateurs.

This was the heyday of Toby Chamberlain and Julian Vince, the most knowledgable and capable Dalek enthusiasts and builders of their day. Julian Vince had no connection to the movie, and was pretty disparaging of the Ocean Daleks, so we can rule him out. Julian’s rather brutal put downs of the Ocean Daleks also suggests that they weren’t from either the TV series or the movie, he was pretty much the expert on it so he would know. So this points to either the stage play, or an amateur build, or even a combination.

Looking at the available pictures, it’s very hard to say.  From what we can see, these Daleks look pretty good.  In clips, there is a red one and a black one. In some of the photographs, the black ones silhouette and appearance doesn’t seem right, too narrow around the neck. They look slightly different, as if from different builds. There’s definitely signs of serious wear and tear in some pictures, with collar rings misaligned and the lower skirting along the base of one seems seriously damaged. Who they were, where they came from, we can only guess.

Sinclair mentioned that they had a third unit, an Emperor Dalek. If true, it’s possible that this was an third original build, separate from at least one, possibly both.  Or it may have been cannibalized or adapted from one of their existing Daleks, perhaps just a bit of ‘dressing up’.

As to the ghouls, nothing much stands on them. Steal someone’s gauze curtains, wrap it a round an extra there you go. The Ancholi may have been more ambitious, but we don’t know much about that costume.

At the same time that Sinclair obtained at least one of his Daleks, in the early to mid-seventies, he also acquired a Tardis shell. Again, the rumour is that this was a Cushing box, which I’d be skeptical of. But it may have been from the stage play, or perhaps a local amateur build. It eventually ended up on display in a shop in England.

There was apparently a Tardis interior/control room, was constructed by Reg Spillett, costing about three hundred pounds to construct, which shows the scale and  ambition of the project.

Shooting took place indoors and outdoors. The print article refers to shooting on weekends in Mark’s garage, and at a studio in Whitstable. Surviving clips show outdoors, so there seems to have been some substantial location work, although the locations aren’t particularly distinctive – which is a shame, since England seems to be dripping with terrific locations and visuals.

The Doctor was played by Leo Adams, a local actor with the Manchester Repertory Company, then 69 years of age. There’s some indication that he appeared in films, but he doesn’t seem to show up on the IMDB. According to the newspaper article, he had been an amateur film enthusiast decades earlier, and on the Ocean’s poster, he is one of the people holding director credits. From this, I assume that he brought some competence to the role. He would pass away at the age of 92, having hopefully lived a life as full as it was long.

Diane Woodley was about fourteen or fifteen years old at the time of shooting. She was Sinclair’s best friend, Nigel Woodley’s sister. Nigel Woodley is mentioned as supplying technical expertise.

As to the rest of cast and crew – perhaps fifty people were involved with the production, at various points and in various ways. Adams and Woodley were the only credited cast members known. Owen Tudor had script credit, but there’s also a reference to Tom Marshall having worked on the script. Direction is credited to four people – Marc Sinclair, Tom Marshall, Leo Adams and Nick Kelley, a credit that Sinclair was prepared to defer to.

The project attracted Mark Ayres, then studying music at Cambridge, for Music. Ayres would ‘go pro’ in the late 1980’s providing musical scoring for serials during the Sylvester McCoy era.

Kevin Davies participated, and seems to have formed a separate second unit/special effects unit who operated on their own, together with David Beasley, Jon Saville and Peter Cox. Davies apparently did high speed photography, explosions, and model work with both a spaceship and miniature Tardis. Some of the props and models may have been borrowed from the BBC. Davies would go on to direct Shakedown, two episodes of Space Island One, as well as Dalekmania, 30 Years in the Tardis, and numerous Doctor Who themed documentary shorts.

Marc Sinclair went on to be a noted actor and casting agent himself. The IMDB lists him as having an uncredited role as a Cyberman in the actual series.

Owen Tudor, the writer, appears to have been a prolific contributor to Doctor Who fanzines, but I’m not sure where he ended up. He was stuying at Oxford during the filming.

There’s a reference in a DWAS Bulletin suggesting that it was going to be shown in 1978 at that year’s Panopticon. But it’s not clear that ever happened.

Ocean in the Sky, so far as we can verify, was publicly shown in its entirety only a single time, on Saturday, September 18, 1979, at Panopticon in London, England. Sinclair believes that there was only the single showing.

Reviews were mixed at best, as I’ve said. Julian Vince, a stern perfectionist, and Paul Tams, already an industry professional, were openly disparaging. In fact, they cited it as an inspiration for their Mission of Doom project. Marc Sinclair in the Wartime dvd extra refers to it as ‘Puddles on the Ceiling.’ Even now, he’s fairly dismissive, commenting only that it kept them out of trouble, and perhaps that it’s not worth the effort. Reports in DWAS publications mentioned ‘mixed reviews.’

The closest we have to an independent assessment is from Bruce Barnes, an Australian fan who attended Panopticon. “Another production in 8mm was Ocean in the Sky. We were told at the beginning, ‘Don’t expect too much, This is a Doctor Who story but it is strictly an amateur production.’  And they weren’t kidding.”

There are a number of reasons that may come into play for poor reception, beyond the film itself. 75 minutes is a substantial length for a Super8 film, perhaps an exhausting length. Due to the simple size of the film stock, and the automatic processing, Super8 images tend to be grainy and oversaturated, which can be difficult for an extended period. It’s a long time to be asking people to sit quietly in uncomfortable chairs, to stare at a mid-sized projection screen.   The need for intermissions for reel changes, may well have killed dramatic momentum and taken people out of it. The story was continuous, not broken into episodes like the classic series, so there was no opportunity to structure it into cliff hangers which might have worked with the reel changes.

And as a continuous story, it might have felt different in structure and flow, from Classic Doctor Who, in a jarring fashion. Doctor Who’s serial format gave it a very distinctive feel, and a continuous, non-serial story might not have had that.

It may also have been genuinely ahead of its time. The audience, though fans, had no culture and no experience with fan films as a genre. Instead, they would have measured it against the stringent measures of professional productions, and in particular, of Tom Baker’s 70’s era Doctor Who, a professional production at the top of its game.

It reminds me a bit of Paragon’s Paragon, the 1974, feature length, Super8 mm, Star Trek film shot by John Cosentino in the United States. That film, like Ocean, is now largely lost. But some fragments of it have survived to upload to Youtube. I recommend looking them up, it may give you some insight into the visual aspects of Ocean – what Super8 would have looked like.

I suspect that it also suffered from the sound quality.  That’s an Achilles heel for a lot of productions.  It appears that they were using a high end camera equipped with sound microphones, and they were using actual Super8 editing equipment for the serious hobbyist.  But the microphones were always pretty inferior, and often omnidirectional, so the sound could be pretty harsh, particularly outdoors.  Another fan film, the 25 minute (single reel) Image Makers, by Paul Tams and Julian Vince also appeared at that Panopticon, as a silent film, and got a much better reception.
It should be remembered that this was a time before the female Doctor of Seattle International, or before the Federation, or Planet/Ad-Lib, or Beeblebrox, or Mini-Unit Minstrels. From about 1984 through 1991, there was an explosion of Fan Films, shot on a variety of formats from 16mm film to VHS camcorder, ranging from episode to feature length with varying levels of professionalism. People were used to the fan film genre, they were exposed to a variety of styles and formats, they had learned to accept and appreciate it. But in 1979, there was almost nothing – certainly nothing on the sheer level of ambition of Ocean in the Sky.

1984-1991, was also the era of VHS tape trading, as fans built up their bootleg collections of actual Who episodes. This created a distribution network for fan films, where they could be copied and recopied, circulated and traded. Fan films were exhibited at conventions, sometimes with rooms or tracks devoted to them. They were even shown on cable access channels in the United States.

The fan films from 1984 through the 90’s, also had the advantage of emerging during or beyond the troubled period of the show itself. There was the disastrous 18 month hiatus, the awkward seasons floundering of Trial of a Time Lord and McCoy’s first season when the series had arguably lost its footing, and the period beyond the cancellation of 1989, all meant that fans were experiencing huge gaps in the show – you weren’t up against Tom Baker in his glory, you were dealing with a fan community hungry for more, and a series which was troubled and limping badly, when it was there. In that environment, fan films were likely to get a more welcome reception.

None of this existed in 1979. The show was live, omnipresent, regular and at the top of its game. The technology to easily make or trade copies simply wasn’t there. The ease of access of simply loading it into a VCR and pressing play didn’t exist. What it amounted to was a single copy, which could only be played in limited forums and only with difficulty, to an audience which simply didn’t have the tools or experience to deal with it.

All of which means I take the rather lukewarm reception with a grain of salt. It’s entirely possible that had it made it onto VHS and some form of wider distribution, it might be much more appreciatively remembered today.

Is it a lost masterpiece? I hesitate to go that far. Hard work and enthusiasm are not entirely complete substitutes for skill and training. But then again, there were some talented people involved with this, people who would go on to prove their chops later on, and people who, at the time, had actually had theatre experience, some experience making smaller films and technical experience.

At the very least, I can say that the ambition, and some aspects of the production, aimed at the levels of the series themselves.  Those were good looking Daleks, they had a real actor in the role of the Doctor, they had a police box, a tardis interior, monsters, actual effects.  Even if it fell down in some areas, it was still impressive.

From what I can gather, the major complaint seemed to be that it dragged on, which is a common sin for fan film makers, afflicting many productions, even the otherwise brilliant Fire and Ice.

So, while it probably wasn’t a lost masterpiece, I think we can assume it was considerably better than viewers at the time thought. In terms of the ambition on display, and the level of commitment, I really think it deserves a look. Had it managed to circulate in America during the late eighties…  it might be legendary now.  As it is, it must be added to the lore of lost history.

Hard to say, the only publicly available material on it are a few photographs and clippings, a poster, some references in DWAS literature, and a few clips on one of the DVD extras of Wartime (1999) and K9 Unleashed (2000).

The original film would thirty-eight years old now, which means it’s probably gone. The actual film stock, super8 is quite durable. Assuming it was stored properly, the film itself might be fine. But the edits and splices, joined by more volatile glues, have probably fallen apart.  There’s a chance it might have been recorded to videotape at some point. We do know that enough of it existed in 1999 and 2000 to provide clips for the documentaries. Marc Sinclair has mentioned the possibility that a friend of his might actually have a copy. Is it worth tracking down?

For now, it’s lost….

Faces of the Doctor: Peter Capaldi – the quixotic, unknowable anti-authority figure?

AS we finally approach the beginning of Series 10 and with the end of the 12th Doctor’s era now hard upon us, I thought now be a good time might be too reflect what he’s brought to the role, what he might give us for his final year as the Doc and where he leaves the show. Read more…

Talkin’ violence, strong language, adult content. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1

Alright, I know, crap title, because BtVS doesn’t even really have these things. It has strangely arch, balletic violence (you’ll have to go to Angel for some real bone-crunching), very smart, highly intelligent use of language, and an equally intelligent ongoing examination on the process of growing up from adolescence to adulthood. Conducted through the medium of vampires and other staples of the horror genre.

As some of you are no doubt aware, @purofilion is currently working her way through Buffy for the first time and, consumed with envy, I’ve decided to join her, only this time this is my first rewatch in maybe seven or eight years. And it’s been highly enjoyable. What follows below is a personal reaction to the first two seasons, for the sake of kickstarting a general discussion of those seasons for whoever might be interested, while remaining spoiler free of anything that happens beyond that. I’d ask any discussion below to respect that, as well as consider anything happening in any season of Angel to be similarly off-limits.

Read more…

Death is your art. Every slayer has a death wish. Even you. Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Five

Buffy stumbled in Season Four. Despite a couple of stand-out classics, and a few strong enough episodes, it was overall a lacklustre season that made a number of fundamental mistakes. If it repeated them in Season Five then I suspect the show would have been facing cancellation. Indeed, by the end of the season, it was scrabbling around to find a new home. If it had underperformed, it may well not have found one.

Read more…

The Greatest UNAUTHORIZED Doctor Stories, Volume One

Once upon a time, Doctor Who was a show in Crisis! So fans decided to started making their own. They’ve been doing it ever since…

When Doctor Who first went off the air in 1985, fans began to create their own films to fill the void. The decline and cancellation of the show resulted in a wave of unauthorized productions, including series, parodies and spoofs, stage plays and audio adventures, films that explored obscure corners of the Doctor Who, or that recreated the feel and style of the classic series with astonishing fidelity.
A unique exploration of an unexamined corner of the Doctor Who Universe. Ths book charts a hidden history of classic Doctors recreated, bold new Doctors, female Doctors, black Doctors, Doctors from around the world, filmed everywhere from Mayan temples to British ruins. These are the stories of the Greatest Doctor Who Fan Films ever made.

Written in a breezy informative style, the book consists of a series of entertaining reviews of the greatest and most important fan films, together with a series of essays that explores the politics behind Doctor Who’s crisis and cancellation, the emergence of a fan culture which supported these films, and the evolution of the technology which made them possible.

This is a must read for any Doctor Who fan, young or old, interested in the hidden corners and secret spaces of their favourite show.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/681387

Well, there you go.  It’s up, it’s out, as an Ebook at least.  I’m still working on the print version.

I suspect that this qualifies as shameless self promotion, and violates the etiquette of the site, or something.   Not truly why I posted this.

Way back, I think in the mid eighties, back when I was in University, wandering through the Student Union Building, I paused in the common room to watch a bizarre story of two spaceships wedged together, apelike things running amok, some sort of drug, and a man in a long scarf who seemed to charm his way through every situation.

Years later, when I owned a television set of my own, in another city, I started to watch that man regularly.  A couple of years later, I saw a notice for a fan club and joined.  And a couple of years later, a young woman brought a VHS containing the female Doctor.  That woman would later become my wife, although like all things, that would end.

The female Doctor stories blew me away.  The idea that something so good could be produced was inspirational.  Our fan club dabbled with the idea of doing a fan film, it never went anywhere.  But I think it left me with a kind of sense of the creative potential of people, that we could do things, that we could be things.  Shortly after, I decided I wanted to be a writer.  Perhaps the female Doctor was part of that inspiration.

I was briefly interested in fan films.  There was something important there for me.  The fact that there was no commercial aspect, no one got a salary, no one made money.  It wasn’t corporate or institutional.  It was pure love.  Love that brought people together, that they shared, that motivated them to try and be creative, to work hard, to achieve something.   That’s …. wonderful.

Unfortunately, this was the early 90’s.  I was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is pretty much the ass end of everywhere, and money was tight, it was the beginning of my career.   When there was an opportunity to go to Visions and actually meet Colin Baker and Jon Pertwee, Paul Darrow, John Nathan-Turner and the rest… we could afford to send my wife.  I worked.  Looking back, I wish I had gone too.  But then, life is full of regrets, big and little.  It doesn’t matter.

This early interest in fan films faded.  Basically we were far far out of the loop.  The few other fan films tended to be not very good and often suffered from multiple dubs.

Life just kept on.  It happens that way.  I still loved the show, but it was long dead.  When pbs ran it, I tried to collect it on VHS.  My career developed, my marriage progressed, I tried to be a writer.

Eventually, of course, it all goes nowhere.   You stand over empty graves, holding a handful of earth in your fist, feeling the grains squeezing between your fingers, you sit in emergency rooms waiting but knowing, you come home and it’s empty and full of silence, you stop writing, your life fills with a maze of black walls.  Because, that’s what happens.

But life moves.  Doctor Who re-launched on television, it showed up on DVD, and after a while, there was a reason to start collecting them.  I’m not a collector, but my ex-wife is.  So there was a purpose.   I got to watch the whole thing over in the process.   A friend turned me onto Star Trek Continues, and I was amazed.  I went back to the Barbara Benedetti Doctor, stumbled over the Rupert Booth Doctor, and I got interested.  I started writing again.  All sorts of things.  About fan films even.

An old novel I’d written got published.  Actually, just a few months ago.  The Mermaid’s Tale, a fantasy murder mystery through Five River’s Publishing.

This place gave me a venue to publish all these fan film reviews that had begun to clutter up my hard drive.  And with that, the simple presence of this encouraged me to write more.  Eventually, that evolved into my corresponding with some of these creators, more or less to tell them I admired their work.  I’m not really big on conversation.

And eventually, that lead to this book.  So thank you, Drew.  And thank you, Puro.   And anyone else, I suppose.   I’m not sure what for.  I guess for being a part of the pathway.  Or something.  Whatever.  But thank you.

I suspect I’m not really cut out to be a fan.  I’m a bit too jagged around the edges, too prone to zigging when the consensus is to zag, perhaps a bit socially maladept, or whatever.   I’m fine with that.  I don’t know that.   This is not my place, and I won’t be hanging out here.  But that’s okay.

Anyway, it all helped to lead to this book.  It’s a small thing about an obscure corner of the cultural landscape of somewhat obscure show.  But that’s okay.  It’s a fine book, I’m proud of it.

See you around.

Coming Soon: The Greatest UNAUTHORIZED Doctor Stories!

doccover1

 

This is a working cover for a book I plan to publish this month.

What is canon? Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (SPOILERS!)

Is it a book? Is it a play? Is it even canon?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a new play by the BAFTA winning writer Jack Thorne, with JK Rowling credited as co-writer on the story. The play has been praised as thrilling, ground-breaking and a triumph.

But the script has received mixed reviews from fans.

Can the fans define canon? Or is that privilege restricted to the author? Is it still canon when an author licenses another author to write a story set in their world? Does it make a difference if the original author is overseeing the new story? Is a story only canon when it’s in the original genre – do only Harry Potter novels ‘count’, rather than the play or the films?

This is a discussion blog about the nature of ‘canon’ – and, inevitably, discussion involves SPOILERS. However, if you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, feel free to use examples from Doctor Who. This is, after all, a Doctor Who site. :-)

Fan Film Reviews – The Auton Trilogy

As I have searched out and watched these fan films, one of the things that’s struck me is how well they’ve done Doctor Who’s monsters.

The Cybermen in Phase Four, Deconstruction, the Experiment, Trident, Gene Genius and Flight of the Daleks are used as effectively as the classic series ever managed. Then there’s Fire and Ice and the Holly Terror, which manage to do justice for the Ice Warriors, Downtime, which does a terrific job with the Great Intelligence and the Yeti. The Sontarans come off very well in Shakedown, Mindgame, Mindgame Trilogy and the Churchtown Incident. The Daleks in the Millennium Trap.

Why is that, I wondered? I think that part of it might reflect a level of commitment. You don’t get these things at the corner store. A cyberman or a dalek, an ice warrior or a yeti, they represent a serious and painstaking effort to build a really elaborate prop or costume. It’s not done overnight, it can’t be. It takes time and care.

And I think that there’s a lot more personal investment in the series and its lore.  It’s not a question of just dragging out whatever is available or marketing.  If you’re doing a Fan Film and sticking the Ice Warriors in it…. You really really want ice warriors.

Typically, these things are done on a shoestring, so if you’re going to the effort of doing something like that, that’s a huge commitment. You’re inclined to think about it, to work hard at it, and to take it seriously.

Which brings us to Autons, who are a surprisingly popular fan film monster. There’s there’s ‘Plastic Treachery’, there’s Westlake Film’s ‘Auton Diaries’, Planet Productions ‘Unit-Revival’ of course,   there’s a little Cameo in Chris Hoyle’s  Masterplan, and of course, there’s the BBV’s ‘Auton Trilogy’

The Autons are a surprisingly popular monster. They showed up twice in the seventies, leading off Jon Pertwee’s first two seasons – Spearhead From Space and Terror of the Autons.  They almost came back with Colin Baker for ‘Yellow Fever and How to Cure It’, and of course, they were the lead Monster for Rose.

So what is it about the Autons that works? I think it’s because they live in uncanny valley. Humans tend to see human faces everywhere, in smiley faces buttons, on mars, cartoon animals, you name it. But robotocists when they were trying to make robots with human faces discovered something…. People were creeped out. The robot faces were too close to human, but not close enough. The effect was called ‘uncanny valley’ that place between the completely human, and the vaguely human but comfortably nonhuman.

There is something genuinely creepy and off putting about Autons blandly handsome, immobile, blank features. There’s an indifference to them. You see an Auton coming at you, and you know that it could walk on by, or simply feed you into a woodchipper, and do either with complete indifference.

Is a blank mask really scary? Sure. Look at the mask that Michael Myers from the Halloween series uses, it has that same effect, bland, blank, dangerous indifference. To a lesser degree, there’s also Jason Voorhees iconic hockey mask, and all the rest of the slashers with their bags over their faces. No dripping fangs, no snarls, no furrowed muzzles, wild eyes or shaggy brows. Just…. bland indifference. No expression. Simply relentless steady malignance. Come to think of it, the Cybermen share that bland, expressionless quality.

There’s also an engaging simplicity to the Autons. Black suit, blank mask, and there you go. By comparison, just about any other alien – Cybermen, Sontarans, that’s just a costumers nightmare. But Autons can be chugged out in a flash. Never underestimate simplicity. The easier it is on the Actors and Costumers, the better its chances of being effective. Crazily elaborate and complicated costumes tend not to hold up to scrutiny and often are difficult to move in, and therefore difficult to shoot.

For whatever reason, they’ve ended up a surprisingly popular Doctor Who monster.  You’d almost think that if they’d have showed up in the 60’s, when the producers were desperate to find the ‘Next Daleks’ they might have been pushed much harder.

Which brings us to the BBV – No relation to the BBC.  BBV stands for Bill and Ben Video (Named after the husand and wife team of Bill and Ben Baggs).   Back in the day, fans were very sort of that sort of pun when doing homemade Doctor Who – check out the initials on the Beeblebrox Company, which did Dark Alliance and Theta G.   The Federation at times called its productions ‘Burma Broadcasting System (BBS), or By the Book Broadcasting System (BBBS).   It’s one of those things.

The BBV started up in 1991, with a forty minute short called Summoned by Shadows, featuring a depressed and grey overcoat clad Colin Baker, playing a nameless stranger, dragged out of his funk by Nicola Bryant, playing ‘Ms Brown’.

Now, for those of you who haven’t seen those episodes way back in 1984 and 1985 – Colin Baker’s first serial was the Twin Dilemma, where he regenerates from the Davision Doctor.  Unfortunately, he comes back wrong, and has a psychotic interlude where he tries to kill Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant) before gaining control of himself.  Chastened and shocked, he decides to renounce being the Doctor, and go off and do penance as a hermit, unfortunately dragging Peri with him.  But then the story starts up, and stuff happens, and suddenly we’re in plot.

I’ve always seen Summoned by Shadows as falling into that moment – when the Doctor renounces his name, abandons his colourful coat, and goes off to be a hermit, with Peri Brown stuck with him and doing her best to drag him out of his funk.  There’s all sorts of pregnant allusions.  Baker’s Stranger is very much a phase of his Doctor.

Of course, the trouble with Summoned by Shadows was no money and no resources, so it came off looking cheap and threadbare, and the non-standard running time didn’t help.  But it came out when real Who was dead, so Fan’s welcomed it.   This lead to a whole series of Stranger videos, and when the BBC started making legal noises after the third one, they invented a name and non-Doctor backstory for the last three.

Then they got into a bunch of things –  a four episode series called PROBE starring John Pertwee’s companion, Caroline Johns, as her character, Liz Shaw… heading up an X-Files type unit.  Former Doctors played guest stars, the eventually to be famous Mark Gatiss directed.  There were interesting one offs like Cyberon and Zygon.  They did audio stories, featuring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred playing ‘The Professor and Ace’, they did Zygon audio stories, Sontaran audio stories, they even did K9 and His Mistress audio.

They were a lot more prolific than their contempories – Dreamwatch did one video, Shakedown, and that was it for them.  Reeltime’s non-documentary stuff consisted of  Wartime, Downtime, Daemos Rising, Mindgame and Mindgame Trilogy in no particular order.   The BBV arguably put out more than both of them together, and did audio besides.

Now, your mileage may vary on the BBV stuff.  Mostly, they had very little to no money.  It was made by and for fans, so there was perhaps at times a lack of sophistication.  Their market was pretty limited.   They did interesting stuff, I don’t think anything was downright wretched, but quality varied.

But I’m not here to survey the whole of the BBV.   We’re here to talk about the Auton Trilogy, written and mostly directed by Nicholas Briggs, who would become a semi-big name in Wholand, for his work writing and voicing Big Finish and for being the voice of the Daleks.

 

Auton 1, or perhaps just ‘Auton’ –  I’m skeptical that a trilogy was the hard plan, is actually quite watchable. It’s a limited production, a handful of speaking parts, what looks like a single or limited set of locations.

Apparently, what UNIT has been doing, is that following all those Alien Invasions, Subterranean Eruptions, Dimensional Hijinks and Mad Scientists, once the smoke clears, they gather up all the leftovers, stick it in crates and then send it off to some top secret warehouse…. Where they promptly forget about it.

That actually makes sense. Not the forgetting about it part, that’s daft. But the notion that someone’s got to take care of all those leftovers and put them somewhere. Anyway, in this case, it appears that UNIT has some low level research division puttering around the thingy’s, and one of the scientists, played by Bryonie Pritchard, triggers one of the things that should have been left alone, loosing the Autons once again.

At this point, Lockwood, played by Michael Wade,  and his clean up crew are summoned in, and the game begins, as they try to figure out what got out, and how to catch it and kill it before it escapes the building. It turns into a classic bug hunt, as soldiers and protagonists play cat and mouse with the monster, handicapped by not knowing what the monster is, or who exactly is the cat and who is the mouse.

Now, we have to swallow the idea that UNIT is so badly managed and its bureaucracy is so incompetent that they can’t properly keep track of or even maintain proper documentation of their alien remains. Ideally, all Lockwood should have had to do was look up a couple of serial numbers, and he’d know what got out. Hell, if the lab rats had been able to look up serial numbers, they’d have known what they were messing with. That’s a pretty big pill.

But if you can swallow it, what’s left is quite an effective little thriller. The direction is tight, the performances are competent. It’s a bug hunt, as I’ve said, but it makes maximum use of its assets – claustrophobic settings, the characters uncertainty as to what they’re dealing with, and the nature of that adversary when it acts, the whole ‘enemy within’ vibe. It’s modest but entirely competent and well done.

It’s all taking place inside a UNIT Warehouse/Research Lab. Everything is indoors. There’s no external shots, no wide angle stuff, no ‘vistas’ or glorious scenes. Instead, it looks like a warehouse, the walls are gray, everything is functional and utilitarian, the living quarters and research lab are drab. There’s a consistency to the look and feel which helps to sell the production.

The standout, however, is the character of Michael Wade’s  Lockwood. He’s everyone’s scary old schoolmaster, the voice of sarcastic authority, merciless, pitiless, judging. Everyone’s run across someone like that. The teacher, the supervisor, the investigator who coldly asks uncomfortable questions and has a sarcastic remark at your answer. …. Plays that part to perfection, probing, dissecting, questing.

But Lockwood is imbued with just enough humanity to make him compelling. He shows enough kindness, enough appreciation and humility, that we like him under his frosty exterior, and he exhibits enough vulnerability that we can sympathize with him. He is an appealing creation, and he steals the show.

Bottom line? Auton is a modest but genuine pleasure. It’s nowhere near the budget or the ambition of Downtime or Shakedown, but it knows its limits and it works effectively within them.

 

Auton 2: Sentinal, is the sequel to Auton. It seems that the lump of Nestene Goo from the last movie managed to escape. Engineering a hijacking, the Autons reactivate and march off, homing in on their next location, an Island containing the village of Sentinal. UNIT calls Lockwood in and the chase is on, but it soon becomes apparent that he has some sort of connection to the Nestene? Can they really trust Lockwood? Can he trust himself?

This is a much larger production than the first Auton movie. It’s not restricted to a single indoor studio. Instead, there’s all sorts of outdoor and location scenes. The principal cast is larger,  Michael Wade is back as Lockwood, with the addition of  Jo Castleton as a telepath, Bryonie Pritchard is there in a reduced role, and there’s a number of new actors playing UNIT or Villagers on the Island.

The outdoor locations, on the boat, the church, the truck, village streets are all visually rich. There are some genuinely iconic scenes. In one the Autons are striding through the field, when they come upon what seems to be a village idiot who crouches down grinning, most of the Autons simply stride past him without even looking, except for one who stops and looks down. Then a little later, the Autons stride into a village, and the handful of villagers who witness it, stop and applaud as the Autons walk past them. Those images are as disturbing as they are unforgettable.

It seems that the Nestene goo, taking the form of Winslet, the caretaker from the first Auton, who got captured by the goo, has made its way to the village on the Island and set itself up as Vicar, hypnotizing the population, and using their collective psychic energy to activate a full sized Nestene Entity which has been buried beneath the Church.

UNIT shows up, they get into a firefight with the Autons. Lockwood and the telepath race to confront the Vicar, and at the climax, a whale sized Nestene Entity, rendered with CGI, full of tentacles erupts from beneath the floor and makes its way to the roof of the Church, where it emits a ‘Dinner Time!’ signal to the rest of the Nestene out in space. It’s a smashing climax.

Then it, and the signal, disappears.

Just like that.

Vanishes, without a trace, as if someone turned off the CGI.

The Telepath announces that Lockwood has done it. Although we have no idea what he’s done, or how, or if it’s a good thing, or part of the evil plot, or whatever. Even Lockwood doesn’t seem to have a clue.

Anyway, that’s it. Nothing to do for it but to have a nice cup of tea on the boat ride to the mainland.

So yeah, problem with the ending here. I’m not actually giving away much, since this is very clearly a cliffhanger intended to set up and take us into the next movie.

Unfortunately, the ghost ex machina style ending kind of throws it for us. Listen, if you’re going to go to all the trouble to CGI up a glowing bean shaped thing with tentacles and have it climb up on top of a church and go all screechy sending a signal to its bros…. You can’t just have it disappear. And especially not for a nebulous reason.

The end result is a lack of coherent resolution. Which is a shame because most of the rest of the film is brimming with interesting characters, dialogue, imagery and ideas.

 

Auton 3, sadly, turns into something of a mess.  Perhaps this has something to do with changes behind the scene.  Nicholas Briggs wrote and directed the first two, but there seems to be a falling out.  He wrote the third, but instead chose to be credited as Arthur Wallis.   Not a good sign when the writer takes his name off the project.  He shares his writing credit with someone named Paul Ebbs.  Bill Baggs and Patricia Merrick share directing credit – nothing wrong with them, but Briggs directed the first two, so it’s probably not a good sign that he stepped down or was pushed out on the third one.

Plot!   The Nestene consciousness captures Lockwood, and it and the Autons retreat to yet another small town, where they throw a force field over the whole place. The various UNIT staff trapped within flounder around ineffectually fighting Autons and trying to link up, until finally the Autons round them up and bring them all together. The key, it turns out, has been Lockwood all along, who has been waging a terrific psychic struggle to contain the Auton broadcast signal within himself.

There you have the problem. The central character for the story is Lockwood, again played by Michael Wade, as he’s been for the previous installments. But this time, Lockwood doesn’t actually have anything to do. He lays in a hospital bed, occasionally mumbling vague nonsense, while all the other characters talk and ineffective actions are taking place elsewhere.

Now, according to the script, he’s engaged in a ferocious life and death psychic struggle with the Autons. Okay. But the trouble is, that he does this by laying in a hospital bed in Auton clutches and making the odd pointless remark.

It’s not visually interesting or effective. Admittedly, internal struggles are always difficult to portray visually in film. For this reason, film and television tend to stay away from that kind of conflict, or at least to minimize its screen time. Wrestling with a conscience may be terrific for writing on a page, but it’s death on a screen. It’s a visual medium, and you need to portray things visually. When your action revolves around a guy laying in a bed… time to go home.

There’s also the fact that he’s a prisoner the whole time. So essentially, the real fight is over and done, the good guys are in check. It’s as if Luke Skywalker opened Revenge of the Jedi by being captured by Darth Vader and spending the rest of the movie in Vader’s dungeon. It’s a tough choice and it kills the movie.

Now, given these two central issues – the fact that the core conflict of the movie is all about Lockwood’s psychic struggle, and the fact that Lockwood is already a prisoner, screws every other character in the movie. Almost nothing that the rest of them do is meaningful, they run around, they shoot at Autons, they try to communicate with each other, they wonder if they’ve been compromised, but nothing much comes out of any of it. The whole bunch of them could have spent the movie playing checkers, until the climax rolled around and the Autons herded them into Lockwood’s hospital room.

It’s a disappointing conclusion, particularly when the first two movies were quite well done.  Perhaps Briggs wrote in some means of dramatizing Lockwood’s psychic struggle, and it was unwisely abandoned either because it was too costly, too difficult or made no sense. Any of those three would be a good reason to jettison something, but I say ‘unwisely abandoned’ because they didn’t actually replace it with anything. Maybe Brigg’s original version actually addressed some of the issues I’d highlighted, maybe the other characters were effectual, maybe Lockwood was running around loose. Who knows.

So that’s the Auton Trilogy. A terrific, low budget B-movie opening with an interesting central character. A very good second entry with some really arresting images and visuals, strong characters and a compelling cliff hanger. And a lackluster third which barely resolves the cliff hanger, but seems to have lost its mojo.

A major standout is Michael Wade’s character of Lockwood.  He’s not necessarily likeable, but he is formidable and fascinating.  There’s also a strong supporting cast, although not necessarily handled well.  Bryonie Pritchard is rock solid in the first, Jo Castleton in the second, and then they both kind of get lost in the third.   The villain, Auton-Winslett is sold.  There’s no bad performances.

The production values and direction are basically satisfactory.  The first is a bug hunt through a warehouse, that’s handled well.  The second is much more ambitious, and has some great visuals.  Even the very minimal CGI construct is okay for the time.   The problem with the third episode has less to do with production value and acting – it’s crippling flaws are built into the story structure, and it would be hard to direct your way out of it, but they don’t try.

I’d happily recommend the first two as worthwhile watches.  Pretty meh about recommending the third. But hey, you got to complete the set, am I right?  Two out of three is not bad.  The Terminator Franchise is running what… Two out of Five?

 

I don’t think it really started off as a trilogy. It almost never does. But especially so in this case. The fingerprints are all over.

Originally, the first movie was going to be a vehicle for Nicholas Courtney playing his Classic Who character, the Brigadier. Unluckily, Courtney wasn’t available for the project, so it was apparently rewritten to center around the Unit Operative, Lockwood. Given how central Lockwood is to the through line of all three movies, it’s hard to imagine the Brigadier taking that role. Arguably, the Brigadier might have played the roles taken by other characters in the series. But then, the Brigadier ends up as the supporting character in someone else’s arc. Possible, but it doesn’t seem extremely likely

Then there’s the dynamics of the stories – the first story is quite self contained, and it ends with Moore’s Lockwood inviting Bryonie Pritchard’s character into an effective partnership. Certainly there were a few loose threads hanging about, but that seemed to be where things were going – a sort of Mulder & Scully ghostbusting duo. That isn’t where the series went.   Pritchard is relegated to a peripheral character in the second movie, and while she plays a role in the third, it’s far from central.

Instead, things jump in a different direction, focusing on the Autons and their fiendish plot. It’s not necessarily a bad decision, and certainly the seeds were planted in the first movie. But it seems like a swerve.

All this leads me to suspect that the Trilogy is more a post-facto thing. The BBV started with Auton, when that was a success, they followed up. There may have been some talk of something more, some ideas, but I don’t think that there was anything resembling a concrete plan.

But then, that’s how a lot of trilogies work.  The first movie has to be self contained, to stand alone, sink or swim.  If it’s really successful, then they go for a second movie, and to maximize the returns, they make it a big two parter with a cliff hanger in the middle.

Evolving Cybermen

This is a bit of an experiment.   As you know, I like to play around with the more obscure corners of Who-land.   I thought it might be fun to explore the cybermen.

Unlike the Daleks, who have changed very little since their first appearance, the Cybermen have morphed quite a bit over the years.   Broadly speaking, between the old and the new series, there have been four principle varieties of cybermen:

Tenth Planet Cybermen – the originals.  Cloth faces, sing song voices, and death rays mounted on their crotches.   No, that’s not suggestive at all, why do you ask.   The Tenth Planet Cybermen appeared only once, in the serial of the same name, on television.

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/tenth_cyber_3548.jpg

However, they appeared more regularly in the comics – largely because the comic artists seldom watched the show, and the publicity stills they used for cybermen reference were all tenth planet stuff.

Tomb Cybermen – seen in the Patrick Troughton serials ‘The Moonbase’,  ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ and ‘Wheel in Space.’  These are leaner than the other varieties, their helmets are narrower, typically, they have lobster hands, with a thumb and grasping pad, their chest units tend to hang freely.  Their suits are somewhat form fitting, with lots of external piping.   There are two varieties of Tomb Cybermen –  the originals from Moonbase and Tomb are identical, and basically the same costumes.  Which is odd, since they were from two different seasons, 67 and 68.  Of course, Tomb was the first story of 68, so they likely just recycled the costumes.

The Wheel in Space variety are slightly different, notably, their eyes have those teardrop slots which were very distinctive, and show up in the modern era cybermen.   Also, you’ll note that they wear the chest unit upside down.

Invasion Cybermen – Appearing in Patrick Troughton’s ‘The Invasion’, close to the end of his tenure.  They bedevilled Tom Baker in Revenge of the Cybermen, harassed Davison in Earthshock, Colin Baker in Attack of the Cybermen, Sylvester McCoy in Silver Nemesis, showed up in the Five Doctors, and had cameo appearances in Carnival of Monsters and Dimensions in Time.   The Invasion Cybermen are slightly different in almost every incarnation – sometimes their head fires a gun, sometimes they have more tubes, sometimes their head-handles are different.   What they all have in common is they’ve got waffle-heads.  Their helmets look like they have waffle irons bolted on each side.  They’re also physically bulky and imposing, their chest-pieces extend over their shoulders, they look solid and dangerous.

 

The design was pretty standardized by then.  Note the waffle heads, teardrop eyes.  The chest plates were still old style.  That was upgraded.  Cybermen were absent from the Pertwee era, except for a quick cameo (blink and you miss it) in Carnival of Monsters.

The Cybermen that confront Tom Baker in Revenge of the Cybermen aren’t too different, they’ve got  the waffle heads and teardrop eyes notably.   They still have external tubes and basically old style chest plates.  That will change…

This is Earthshock’s Cybermen.  Note that they dropped the ‘teardrop eyes’.  The Waffle Head look is still going strong.  But the handlebars are different, they started to play with that.  And the biggest difference:  The chest-plate is redesigned, and goes up and around the shoulders and neck.  That will become the standard chest plate.   This becomes the standard look through the Five Doctors, Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis, although there are considerable variations – notably in the handlebars, the underlying overalls,  and somewhat in the configuration of the chest units in some.

New Series Cybermen – Beginning with the Rise of Cybermen-Age of Steel, continuing through Army of Ghosts-Doomsday, this established the fully armoured variety.  The bunch in the first four appearances were alternate world cybermen.  But it turns out the Doctor’s main reality had Cybermen that looked almost identical, although their abilities and appearances differed slightly – Nightmare in Silver, and many more appearances.  There’s even been a Cyber-Woman (hot),  a Cyber-King (kaiju!), and Cyber-beasties.  But those will be pictures for another time.

*************

Now here’s the peculiar thing.   There’s no explanation whatsoever for all the different Cybermen.

In fact, Doctor Who is pretty damned aggressive about not explaining why the Cybermen are different.

For instance, in Revenge of the Cybermen, upon encountering Tom Baker’s Doctor, the Cybermen have a discussion, where they recap their encounters with the previous Doctors – which means their history incorporates all three versions.  They do the same thing in Earthshock.  And we get the same thing in the new series in the Two Doctors.

So…  it’s all the same cybermen….  I guess?

Technically, in Doctor Who-Earth time, the first appearance of the Cybermen is on Earth, Circa 1969-1970 in the Invasion.

The shittiest, most primitive original superman attack Earth in 1986.

But this is also the Time Frame that the WaffleHeads show up in Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis.

But then we go to the ‘Tomb’ style Cybermen in the near future of Earth in ‘The Wheel in Space and Moonbase.’

Then in Revenge of the Cybermen, its the far future, the Cybermen are on their last legs and they’re waffle heads.

Then even further in the future, we go back to the Tomb style Cybermen, in the Tombs of Telos.

But oddly, in Attack of the Cybermen, its the waffle heads in the Tombs.

Except for Attack of the Cybermen, they don’t get their hands on Time Travel, so that’s not an explanation.  Except in Attack of the Cybermen, where the Waffle Heads seem to be using it to go back to Earth to help out the Mondas Cybermen, while messing about on Telos.

But despite two different brands of Cybermen tombed on Telos…  they never meet.

So what’s the deal, do we have Cyber-Segregation?  Do the Waffle Heads and the  Narrow Heads have some weird Separate But Equal deal going on?

Fan Film Reviews: Resurrection of Evil

To start with, we have the the Doctor himself, played by Mark Bennett. Okay, he looks a little bit like a very young Rowan Atkinson in a powder blue leisure suit. I really wasn’t sure about him at first, he seemed like he was trying to hard. But then, oddly enough, he puts on a hat, and suddenly, he sells it. He’s gets this retro 60’s vibe, like you could spot him walking along in the background of a James Bond or Carry On movie. Suddenly, he’s confident, jaunty, brilliant and charming, with just a faint echo of the poise of a Tom Baker, or a more extroverted Davison, or a laid back Pertwee. Whatever the Doctor has going on, this guy has captured it, and having captured it, it helps to carry him across a lot of territory. This Doctor has a lot to do, even in terms of simple exposition, and at different points, particularly towards the end, he has to show different sides of his character.