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….


4 comments

  1. Thanks for a great article,  @denvaldron

    Films are all too easily lost forever but it’s nice to enjoy any fragments which remain.

     

    All I could find are Marc Sinclair’s Facebook & this poster…

     

    Any chance of some links?

    I will check out the Wartime extra…

    It would truly be nice to one day be able see this 1st ‘Live action’ fan flick…

     

     

     

  2. I did speak to Sinclair on Facebook, he was willing to chat to a point.  I think he’s got mixed feelings about it.  This was a huge part of his life as a teenager for two years, and after all that work, it flopped.  And it was over thirty-five years ago.  I had the sense that he was at once pleased and embarrassed that someone had taken an interest in it.

    I’ve kept digging.  At this point, it appears that at possibly two, perhaps more, VHS copies exist of the film, in the possession of some of the people who were involved with it.  So it’s not perhaps, quite lost.

    From what I’ve been able to gather, it appears to have been screened privately, so someone could videotape it on a VHS camcorder.  The description is ‘low quality.’   If the VHS camcorder was mounted on a tripod or other fixed surface, you might have gotten as good a copy as possible – but you’d probably have a fairly stark image – super 8 onto VHS videotape?  Ouch.  And the VHS camera would have probably picked up the sound of the super8 projector.  If the Camcorder didn’t have a fixed mount, then it would be pretty wobbly.

    I’m going to see if I can try and  obtain a copy.  I dearly want to see this, and I think I’m in a unique situation to understand and forgive its technical problems.

     

     

  3. @denvaldron
    Absolutely wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing that. I would have been 17 when that was made, and I can relate entirely to the commitment that led to its realization.

    As @wolfweed said, it would be great to know more, but what you have provided us with is great in itself. Many thanks.

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