Friday, 11 May 2018

UFO - ordering the episodes

Following on from the previous article (which you should go and read if you haven't already – it explains a lot of the background to this) I thought I would lay out my preferred viewing order for UFO. It's probably also worth reading my article about the episode order of Space: 1999, which also covers a lot of the issues around the sequencing of film series.

I don't feel that re-ordering UFO is as complex a task as Space: 1999, but there are nevertheless some interesting anomalies that need to be addressed. One thing to note from the start is that the series was filmed in two distinct production blocks: after the first seventeen episodes were completed, filming was suspended for several months while the production relocated to a different studio. As a result of the enforced break, there were a number of cast changes, and also quite a few stylistic differences with what had gone before. Although the show is generally regarded as a single season, I personally feel that the two blocks are so distinct as to regard them as two different seasons.

As with Space: 1999, the default position in fandom these days is to go with production order. This is how the DVDs are arranged – with one exception which we'll come to shortly. For the first block, the production order is as follows:

1.  Identified
2.  Computer Affair
3.  Flight Path
4.  Survival
5.  Exposed
6.  Conflict
7.  The Dalotek Affair
8.  A Question of Priorities
9.  Ordeal
10. The Responsibility Seat
11. The Square Triangle
12. Court Martial
13. Close Up
14. Confetti Check A-O.K.
15. E.S.P.
16. Kill Straker!
17. Sub-Smash

On the DVDs, this order is maintained except for reversing the sequence of Survival and Exposed for “continuity reasons”: Exposed introduces the character of Paul Foster, whereas in Survival he's already a fully-fledged officer in command of the Moonbase. What happened was this: the Andersons had originally cast the Italian actor Franco De Rosa as the Moonbase Commander, but sacked him after a couple of days of filming – apparently because of his “ego and temperament”. Whether that just meant he was a prima donna pain in the arse on the set, and thus holding up the tight shooting schedule of a tv series – or if it's a polite way of saying he couldn't act for toffee – I really couldn't say. It's interesting to note though that De Rosa had also appeared in the Andersons' feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, as did many of the subsequent cast members of UFO. He's listed pretty high up the cast list (above both George Sewell and Ed Bishop!) and yet speaks one line and appears for about thirty seconds. He was supposed to the focus of a major subplot that got deleted from the movie – we'll never know why, I guess, but he really doesn't have a good record in Anderson productions. There's probably a lesson there not to just cast someone based on their pretty boy looks alone!

Well anyway, De Rosa was out and that left a hole in the production. With the first several scripts already completed and itching to get into the studio, there was no time to pause production and recast. They managed to cover this for the first few episodes by promoting Gabrielle Drake's character up from a humble Space Tracker to Moonbase Commander, inadvertently making the series more progressive for its time that it was actually intended to be. But the fourth episode was intended to be a sci-fi version of Hell in the Pacific, with the Moonbase Commander stranded on the Moon's surface after a mission goes wrong, and forced to work with an equally stranded alien to survive. It was felt to be an unsuitable role for a female character (so I guess progressiveness only goes so far!) – and the solution was to write in a different male character to take on the more macho functions that had been envisaged for De Rosa. By now, they've had time to cast new actor Michael Billington, and Survival can get straight into the studio with the name Paul Foster hastily scribbled onto the script.

The problem is, Foster isn't just a background Interceptor pilot, he's destined to be a major character, and since he wasn't featured in the opening episode, the producers decide he needs to have his own specific introductory episode. The answer is to pull forward an upcoming script about an investigative journalist who gets too close to the heart of the SHADO set-up and has to be dealt with; give it a few tweaks so that Foster becomes the lead character, a test pilot who witnesses a UFO incident, investigates what's going on, and eventually gets the chance to join SHADO. The hasty rewrite perhaps explains why the title Exposed, which would have been appropriate to the investigative journalist storyline, doesn't make a lot of sense any more.

Well, that explains why Exposed needs to be viewed out of production order – but I still find the simple reversal of episodes 4 and 5 unsatisfactory. Exposed ends with Foster about to start his SHADO training. Even if he's being fast-tracked through the process under Straker's sponsorship, you'd think that some time ought to elapse before he's ready to take charge of Moonbase. The obvious answer is to move Exposed back to be the second episode – since it's specifically designed to be viewed out of sequence, why not go the whole hog? Then Foster is introduced to the series as soon as possible, and is plausibly absent for the next couple of episodes. During that absence, we also get to establish the character of Lieutenant Ellis as Moonbase Commander before she's unceremoniously replaced by Foster for a few episodes. (I'll talk a bit more about that later.) There's even a scene in Exposed where Straker, concerned about slow interception times, tells Freeman to make inspections of Moonbase to improve their efficiency – something we actually see him doing in Computer Affair.

The next major issue I have is with Confetti Check A-O.K. It's a flashback episode showing the early days of setting up SHADO and the disintegration of Straker's marriage. Now in a modern arc-based show, you might have a reason for featuring a flashback episode so late in the season, in that it might be the pay-off to unexplained character behaviours earlier in the show. In UFO, it's simply the case that the producers thought A Question of Priorities worked really well, and wanted to explore more of the background to Straker's character. Due to the episodic nature of an ITC film series, neither episode particularly depends on the other. You can watch A Question of Priorities as a self-contained piece, since all the information you need is there in the episode – likewise, Confetti Check A-O.K. can be viewed on its own. But viewing the two episodes as a pair does deepen one's emotional involvement in the story of either. As to which way round they should be seen – well, as I've said, there's no particular revelatory reason for placing Confetti Check later on. I personally feel that seeing it earlier in the series gives more emotional depth to A Question of Priorities, as we already know what Straker has been through to get to that point. It's an individual preference, but I would drop Confetti Check back to the fourth slot. (It also helps to pad out the “Foster in training” gap.)

These are the two big changes I would make. Otherwise the production order is broadly sensible, though I would make a few minor tweaks here and there to aid the flow of the narrative. One of the notable things about the show is its large semi-regular cast of SHADO operatives. Not everyone is in every episode, but that helps to sell the idea of a large military organization, where people could be on leave or re-assigned (or even, we might be left to imagine, killed during an off-screen mission). Occasionally, a character fills a different position to his regular assignment, usually a temporary secondment as a mission specialist – such as when Gay Ellis and Mark Bradley take part in Freeman's ground mission in Computer Affair; Lieutenant Masters works on the long-range camera probe in Close Up; or Nina Barry is assigned to the Skydiver mission in Sub-Smash. The only character who gets permanently re-assigned to a new role is Lew Waterman, initially an Interceptor pilot, and later promoted to Captain of Skydiver. And yet, after his first two episodes in charge of the submarine, he suddenly reappears as an astronaut in The Square Triangle – I suspect because stock footage of an interception was used. Now, I'm perfectly happy with characters changing jobs during the series, but I find it jarring to see Waterman yo-yoing back and forth. The simple solution here is to shuffle The Square Triangle up slightly to place it before Ordeal.

Paul Foster is the exception to this pattern, as he bounces around through different roles depending on the episode. I see Foster as being utilized by Straker in a troubleshooter role, being sent into the most complex and dangerous situations as the “man on the ground”. So, for instance, in Ordeal he's stationed aboard Skydiver because it's Lew Waterman's first tour as Captain, and Foster is there to oversee the transition in command. He also replaces Gay Ellis as commander of Moonbase for several episodes – although Ellis comes back in later episodes, which is not something that usually happens. As it's a film series, we don't get any explanation within the narrative for why Foster has replaced her – (I've discussed the real world reasons earlier) – one of the novelizations suggests that Ellis has contracted a cold whilst on leave, and is thus forbidden from space travel, which is as good an explanation as any. Later, in The Responsibility Seat, Foster is doing another tour on Moonbase whilst Gay Ellis remains in command. A little narrative oddity occurs between E.S.P. and Kill Straker! The former ends with Foster preparing to depart for a tour on Moonbase, and the latter opens with him on his way back to Earth, the tour concluded. So to help smooth the narrative flow, I'd move The Responsibility Seat between these two episodes, creating a little arc for Foster's second Moonbase tour.

Going back to those three episodes where Foster is Moonbase Commander, it's interesting to note that The Dalotek Affair is done as a flashback – Foster recounting to Freeman events that happened “six months ago”. To sell this better, I would move Flight Path (a Foster-free episode) between Conflict and The Dalotek Affair. This would suggest that Foster has been on leave following his stint on Moonbase, and is meeting up with Freeman prior to resuming his duties.

So, with those adjustments, we're left with an order like this:

1.  Identified
2.  Exposed
3.  Computer Affair
4.  Confetti Check A-O.K.
5.  Survival 
6.  Conflict
7.  Flight Path
8.  The Dalotek Affair
9.  A Question of Priorities
10. The Square Triangle
11. Ordeal
12. Court Martial
13. Close Up
14. E.S.P.
15. The Responsibility Seat
16. Kill Straker!
17. Sub-Smash

The second block is going to take a lot more work. Several cast members have left, most notably George Sewell and Gabrielle Drake – and the producers also decided to streamline the series, eliminating many of the semi-regular characters. This does unfortunately mean that there are a few more instances of characters incongruously popping up in different operational roles (I guess because there are fewer actors to go round) – and this isn't something that can be smoothed away quite so easily with an episode reshuffle. The production order is as follows:

18. The Sound of Silence
19. The Cat with Ten Lives
20. Destruction
21. The Man Who Came Back
22. The Psychobombs
23. Reflections in the Water
24. Timelash
25. Mindbender
26. The Long Sleep

I certainly find it disconcerting to have the two most bizarre episodes, Timelash and Mindbender back-to-back like that – you'd really want to spread that much weirdness out more.

The Sound of Silence, with its minimal cast and relatively straightforward (for UFO) alien abduction plot, serves as a nice transitional episode between the blocks – you'd certainly notice the absence of Alec Freeman, but it's not as bad as having a new second-in-command already in post without an introduction. (We'll save that for the next episode.)

The second block's most obvious cast change is that Virginia Lake, the scientist who designed SHADO's tracking system way back in the first episode, is now filling the Freeman role. Meanwhile, the absence of Lieutenant Ellis sees Nina Barry promoted into the role of Moonbase Commander. But there's one episode which seems to be based on a completely different format, and that's The Man Who Came Back. In this episode, the second-in-command role is filled by the character of Colonel Grey, much more obvious as a straight replacement for Freeman; and Virginia Lake is serving as Moonbase Commander, and seems to have been in the role for a while. She also has a relationship with Paul Foster – himself on another Moonbase tour – although given that this is never mentioned again, and the two continue working together in future episodes without any animosity, we can probably assume it was brief and ended amicably.

Because of these differences, I'd actually suggest this episode should be moved right after The Sound of Silence. So, in this narrative, Virginia Lake is initially assigned to be Moonbase Commander as replacement for Lieutenant Ellis – my thinking is that she might be overseeing a major upgrade to the tracking systems, which is her area of expertise after all – and Colonel Grey is most definitely replacing Freeman. It's only after the events of this episode that Grey – presumably – moves to a different role; Virginia (once her Moonbase tour is complete) takes over the second-in-command position; and Nina Barry is permanently promoted to command of Moonbase. It certainly feels a more natural progression than having established characters jumping back and forth through assignments. (As a side note, I will note that Nina does seem to be serving as Moonbase Commander in The Sound of Silence, but it's easy enough to assume she's just filling in until the new permanent Commander arrives.)

Timelash features Straker picking Virginia Lake up from the airport upon her return from Moonbase – and they talk about it as if it's a new experience for her. So in keeping with the narrative structure I've suggested above, I think this episode needs to be placed right after The Man Who Came Back. In effect, it means we get two episodes with Virginia before she officially takes up that second-in-command role. I also think that The Psychobombs should be seen next – it may just be me, but I always feel that Virginia's reaction to Straker's single-mindedness indicates that she's still getting used to seeing his command style at close quarters. So I would place those three episodes between The Sound of Silence and The Cat with Ten Lives to form an arc reintroducing Virginia Lake to the series.

(I would be remiss if I didn't point out the flaw in this scheme. In The Cat with Ten Lives and The Man Who Came Back, Straker has a temporary replacement secretary, Miss Holland. There's a scene in The Cat with Ten Lives clearly intended to introduce the character, where Straker thanks her for standing in – and indeed, his regular secretary Miss Ealand later returns. In my re-ordering, we unfortunately meet Miss Holland in The Man Who Came Back, then we get Miss Ealand back in Timelash, then we have Miss Holland again in The Cat with Ten Lives and only here does Straker acknowledge her. It is a little jarring, but I consider it the lesser of two evils compared to trying to smooth Virginia Lake's reintroduction to the series – and creating a more plausible narrative for the major characters. There it is. There's no reason why Straker shouldn't have a relief secretary from time to time, and maybe Miss Holland had been there a while in The Man Who Came Back – but only recently returned for a second stint in The Cat with Ten Lives.)

The other change I'd suggest is to move Mindbender slightly earlier, and the reason for this goes back to that same problem of character continuity from the first block. Lew Waterman is briefly seen as Captain of Skydiver in Mindbender, through the use of stock footage once again – whereas we establish a new (unnamed) Captain in Destruction, played by David Warbeck. There's a little bonus though: we've now spread out Timelash, Mindbender (and indeed The Long Sleep) – the most “trippy” episodes.

So, we're left with this sequence:

18. The Sound of Silence
19. The Man Who Came Back
20. Timelash
21. The Psychobombs
22. The Cat with Ten Lives
23. Mindbender
24. Destruction
25. Reflections in the Water
26. The Long Sleep

Alternatively, you could reverse the last two episodes. I like to give to give myself the choice, depending on my mood at the time, between concluding the series with a bleak, downbeat character piece (The Long Sleep) or with a large-scale battle against massed UFOs (Reflections in the Water). Of course neither is a proper conclusion in the narrative sense, because this is an ITC film series – the story just goes on forever...

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Last Orders Please...

Here's something about me: I like putting things in order. (By which, I don't mean I'm some sort of vigilante, nor do I correct historical events like Sam Beckett out of Quantum Leap.) If you've followed any of my online activities, you'll see that I devote an awful lot of time to devising sequences for things. Doctor Who – The Complete Adventures is obviously the most extreme example of this, and you may also have seen my suggested re-sequencing of the episodes of Space: 1999. This is a borderline autistic tendency of mine, and it can be seen in the way I place any two related items together – as the book and DVD shelves in my home would bear witness. Everything is carefully arranged in a very precise order, which may not be the more obvious alphabetical or publication orders, but instead reflect my personally preferred reading or viewing orders. The shelves are also divided and sub-divided into numerous sections, grouped variously by medium, genre, director, studio, nationality – all dependent upon a complex formula I keep in my head. It bewilders many, but it makes perfect sense to me, and I know instantly where anything might be.

Well, that's an insight into my peculiar mind. But I want to return to the subject of tv shows and their running orders – and reflect on just how I first got started with that. I personally think that any tv show without a continuing storyline is fair game for a re-sequencing. Mainly this applies to the sort of genre shows that used to populate American television: cop shows, spy shows, sci-fi shows and so on. Now, in most cases, you get a new story every week, the status quo is restored by the end of the episode, there's no continuity to speak of and no consequences. And for most people, myself included, watching such shows in any broadcast order is just fine – Kojak or The Incredible Hulk or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or The Six Million Dollar Man work in just about any order – although it's probably best to watch the episodes in each season as separate blocks, as cast and format changes usually occur at the season breaks, and occasionally you get sequels to popular episodes from previous seasons. (In the case of one of my favourite shows, Mission: Impossible, I might even argue that you could watch the episodes from any season interchangeably – other than the first, which had a different lead actor – since the very premise of the show is that Jim Phelps goes through his dossier of agents and selects those who are right for the particular mission at hand. Having Leonard Nimoy and Lesley Warren one week, then Martin Landau and Barbara Bain the next, reinforces that concept – as long as you can overlook the clothes and longer hairstyles on display in the late sixties/early seventies episodes!)

But there are occasions when being a fan of a show leads one to have a more direct engagement with it, and indeed a more interactive relationship. A desire to recontextualize the show is very much part of that – that can include writing fan fiction, doing video re-edits, or re-ordering the episodes to something more satisfying. In a lot of cases, it may just mean going back to the production order rather than the network broadcast order. This works for the original Star Trek for instance. Sometimes though, a series requires a much more radical approach. Where a show has little to no continuity between the episodes, re-ordering them becomes a creative act in itself – you are devising a new ongoing narrative, using the discrete episodes as building blocks, positioning them in such a way as to strengthen the storyline you're trying to tell. (For instance: asking yourself whether a character makes a certain choice in episode X because of his experience in episode Y?) It's this sort of engagement that takes the fan above and beyond being a mere passive viewer, and it's to be celebrated.

As an aside here, I should point out that this generally applies more to American series than British ones. British broadcasters have traditionally not been as afraid of ongoing plotlines, continuity and character development as the American networks seem to have been, and generally speaking the series reset has not been a thing in this country. Whilst each episode is clearly its own story, it contributes to an ever-ongoing storyline for the characters. (Obviously, I'm not thinking about serials and literary adaptations here, and soap operas have always done this.) But it's just a given that British tv proceeds in order – you can look back at pretty much any long-running show from the sixties onwards and see this. The Power Game, The Brothers, A Family at War, The Onedin Line, Hadleigh, Warship, Callan, The Main Chance, Colditz, Man at the Top, When the Boat Comes In, Upstairs Downstairs, Sam, The Duchess of Duke Street, The Sandbaggers, Secret Army, All Creatures Great and Small, Enemy at the Door, By the Sword Divided, Nanny, Tenko, The House of Eliot, Survivors, Wish Me Luck, and Blakes 7 are just some examples that I can see on my DVD shelves right at this moment. What I'm trying to say is, it's just normal for Britain.

And yes, Doctor Who is just such a show – to the extent that I would never question the broadcast order of the episodes. (Arguments have been made for re-ordering seasons 25 and 26, which had their sequences changed from the original intended order quite late in the day. I might almost concede the former, since the alteration was forced by an unexpected scheduling change, and does lead to a minor visual continuity error. The change to season 26 was an artistic decision made by the producer, so I think should be respected. It doesn't mess up continuity, though it may change the emphasis on certain lines of dialogue. Ultimately though, the notion that broadcast order is the right order for a BBC drama of this type is so ingrained in the consciousness, that I find I cannot disagree with it.) The point of The Complete Adventures is not to re-arrange the tv show itself, but to go beyond into all the panoply of spin-off media. The creative act here is to create the narrative for the Doctor's entire life (as far as we know it) using the various disparate stories to construct that – it's the same principle as an episode re-ordering, but on an infinitely larger scale.

In contrast, the American networks seemed to prefer the “new story every week” format for most of their drama shows, and this held true up until the 1990s, when story arcs became a thing. The legal drama Murder One is usually held up as the first show to really push the envelope with a season-long arc, although this probably just demonstrates how sci-fi was a neglected poor cousin in those days, since Babylon 5 was already half-through a five year arc when Murder One came along and excited the critics with its “innovation”. (And hell, I could point out that the original Battlestar Galactica in 1978 had a very definite arc plot running right through it.) Since then, the age of the box set and binge-watching has come upon us, and continuing plotlines are very much the norm in America now. So they finally caught up with us!

And that, in a roundabout way, brings me back to my subject. I've stated that ongoing plotlines are very much a British thing, but there are exceptions – for example, some cop and detective shows, where each episode is a new case (but even those often have underlying character arcs running through them) – and most obviously, filmed adventure series such as The Avengers, the Gerry Anderson shows and various ITC action thrillers. These were designed to be sold to America, and so aped the “new story every week” formula. In the majority of cases, as with the US shows, any order works just fine. But there's one ITC series where the running order has long been a subject of intense debate and the cause of much anxiety. That show is The Prisoner, and that's really where this story starts.

Like many people of my generation, I first discovered The Prisoner through the Channel 4 repeats in the early 1980s – before that, it was something you'd heard of (it was occasionally mentioned in the pages of Starburst and Doctor Who Monthly) but had no real idea what it was. I was 14, which was probably the right age to discover The Prisoner. To a teenage boy, it seemed like the best thing ever, in a way it probably wouldn't to a man in his forties. And indeed, I can't put my hand on my heart 35 years later and say it's the best tv show I've ever seen, because it patently isn't – not when you've read proper books and seen things like Edge of Darkness or Secret Army or I Claudius. Indeed, it's a show that demonstrates most of the tropes of the ITC action shows – although it's trying to do something more intellectually worthwhile with them. I still applaud it, and gain a great deal of satisfaction when I watch it again.

But one thing that surrounded the show right from the outset was the question of the running order. I remember back in 1983, a man called Roger Goodman (one of the original founders of the Six of One appreciation society) appeared on Did You See? to review the repeats, and made much of the fact that Channel 4 were showing the series in the wrong order. He seemed certain that if the show had been broadcast in the right order, it would all make a lot more sense. And some of things he pointed out made sense. But let's face it, The Prisoner was shown in the “right” order back in the sixties, and it didn't make a lot of sense to the viewers back then either.

Anyway, as a insanely keen teenager, I sent off my money and joined Six of One, and that's where I discovered the controversy around the running order. What I particularly loved about it was that a healthy debate was encouraged, and there was no official fan club position. It was an eye-opener to this teenage mind, who'd joined the club expecting to be given some answers. And yet, it really does befit The Prisoner that there are no easy answers – and that the rights of the individual to place their own interpretation on the series is encouraged and celebrated. (This seems to have changed in later years, and Six of One eventually endorsed a particular running order for the series – this was used for an American DVD release, which also described it as the “fan preferred” order. It didn't say which fan preferred it though! Six of One seems to be a shadow of its former self, with a dwindling membership, so I'm not sure how representative of fan opinion they can be these days. Even Roger Goodman has denounced them.)

There's a Wikipedia page listing Prisoner episodes, and various attempts at ordering them, which contains the statement that “everyone agrees on the first and the last three episodes of the 17 produced shows”. I'm not sure that's true – in the old days of intense debate, I knew several people who shifted The Girl Who Was Death out of the fifteenth slot for various reasons. In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that even the opening and closing episodes don't have to be set in stone. It's a fact that the final sequence of the last episode is the same as the opening sequence of the first, suggesting that the whole series goes round in a loop, and you can leap in anywhere. It's like the televisual equivalent of Finnegans Wake or Dhalgren. So perhaps the episodes can be viewed in any order – perhaps a non-linear narrative is the whole point. You could even open the series with Fall Out if you wanted, and treat the rest of the episodes as flashbacks.

My own preferred order – though it's changed and developed over the years – is a bit more conventional than that, and attempts to construct a more or less linear narrative. I did this by looking at the production order, the original UK and US broadcast orders, and assimilating the good and bad points of each. And then applying those to the story I wanted to tell. I set out certain narrative strands that I wanted to follow through the series, and arranged the episodes to reflect those. There are clearly some episodes where the Prisoner is fairly new, and the Village authorities are treading carefully with him so as not to risk damaging him – so there are simple psychological tricks, deceptions and manipulations employed. Also, of course, it's in these earlier episodes that he makes all his attempts to escape. Later on, we see an escalation of the threat, with mind control, brainwashing and dangerous drugs being used. At the same time, the Prisoner seems to give up the idea of escape and concentrates on trying to fight the Village from within. This in turn leads to a change in the power dynamic between the Prisoner and his adversaries, and he eventually brings about the downfall of several of the Number 2 characters in the process. Synthesizing the narrative progression from all that leads me to this order:

Free For All
Dance of the Dead
The Chimes of Big Ben
The Schizoid Man
It's Your Funeral
Many Happy Returns
Living in Harmony
The General
A. B. and C.
Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
A Change of Mind
Hammer into Anvil
The Girl Who Was Death
Once upon a Time
Fall Out

That's a fan preferred order, and I'm the fan who prefers it! Seriously, it's the order I tend to stick to whenever I rewatch the show. It enhances my enjoyment of the show, and that makes it worthwhile intellectual exercise in its own right. Make of it what you will. (I's aware I haven't gone into a detailed justification for my reasoning here as it's outside the scope of this article – that's something to follow up another time.)

As I said earlier, The Prisoner is something of a special case, and the majority of the ITC thriller shows are watchable in almost any order – I say “almost” because many of the shows have an opening episode that sets up the format and backstory, and in most cases should be watched first. But sometimes even that is mutable. The Champions for example shot additional footage to wrap around its first episode, turning it into a flashback where the heroes look back to how it all began – which meant the episode could now be dropped anywhere into a repeat run, and indeed that the series could go round on a loop forever. Conversely, although Man in a Suitcase has a first episode (Man from the Dead) it was actually shown sixth on the initial transmission – because it isn't the beginning of McGill's story, which starts in media res – rather it's where he finds out why he's in the situation he is. Placing it sixth does cause a few continuity problems, such as where dialogue in other episodes refers back to a situation we can only understand if we've seen Man from the Dead. In that case, I'd recommend sticking with the production order, which is how the show is sequenced on the DVDs.

A few years after The Prisoner, another show got me vexed over its running order. The much-missed TVS started to repeat UFO as part of its Late Night Late slot. (Strange to think now that 24 hour broadcasting was once a new and exciting thing.) I didn't catch all the episodes initially, but those I did see had a few weird juxtapositions that leapt out at me. The disconnect between the end of Exposed, where Foster has just been recruited into SHADO, and the start of Survival, where he's already been made Commander of Moonbase didn't sit well. And some episodes that seemed to me to belong early in the series were screened quite late in the run. Obviously, I wasn't the only person who noticed this: the host of Late Night Late, David Vickery, mentioned that they'd received a few comments that they were playing the episodes in the wrong order. (An in-vision continuity announcer – you don't see many of them any more!) He then explained that when TVS had announced they would be screening UFO, the station had received a letter from a fan who'd listed the order they ought to run the episodes. Since I'd already identified a few anomalies, I wondered quite what rationale this fan had employed to devise his sequence. I'd caught up with more of the episodes by then, and I began to piece my own order together. (Something else |I'll come back to in more detail at a later date.)

Funnily enough, around that time I caught with an old school-friend, Alec Baker, whom I hadn't seen for a while. He shared my interest in The Prisoner and UFO, and I remarked to him grumpily about the fan's letter to TVS, and how it had got the running order completely wrong. You can imagine how embarrassed I was when Alec revealed to me that he was the one who'd written in! He was gracious enough to concede that he probably hadn't gone into the series in quite as much forensic detail as me, and had gleaned his order mainly from things he'd read in the Fanderson magazines. Well, there's a lesson there probably. Looking back with three decades' hindsight, I realize what an insufferable prig I could be at times, especially when I'd decided I was an expert on a particular topic. These days, I hope I'm more relaxed about it all. I try never to lambaste another person's pet theories, instead I just suggest a possible alternative, lay out my own arguments for consideration – there's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy debate, and frankly we should do all we can to oppose the development of an ossified fan consensus. I do try and take care not to present myself as some definitive authority just because I've got a website – and I'm frequently at pains to point out that The Complete Adventures is just my own take on the Doctor Who timeline, and encourage others to develop their own ideas.

I don't always get the same courtesy in return, but I guess that's the internet for you. I was once accused in a Google group of trying to “rape” Space: 1999 (yes really!) for suggesting a different running order. My critic, who also said he wanted to throw up after reading my site, went on to state that the production order was the only correct order – not that he offered any sort of argument to support his position. (I'd already explained why I found the production order unsatisfactory.) As I've said, I'm all for discussion and debate, and an amicable difference of opinion. But is there any need for such inflammatory language, especially over something as trivial as a tv show? I don't know, some people... On the other hand, there's a Space: 1999 themed wiki that's adopted my running order as its standard – without any prompting from me, I might add. (And with proper acknowledgement too.) So what started as an intellectual parlour game, a creative exercise for my own amusement, ends up being something of benefit to others – and that makes it all seem worthwhile.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Canon Balls!

Do you remember the 3W Institute in Capaldi's first series finale? Named in recognition of the “three words” that so terrified Dr Skarosa? (Actually it had a funny resonance for me, since 3W was the form I was in at school at the time of season 20 – our form teacher was Mr Caspell, who'd once been a stunt driver on the tv show Star Maidens – but I digress... maybe that's a story for another day.) What I'm getting at in this rather tortuous opening paragraph is the notion that, for me, the three terrifying words are something different: “Is it canon?”

Yes, that's right – the three words (or some variant thereof) that are guaranteed to creep into – and very often derail – any forum discussion about spin-off media. Usually by about the third or fourth post in any thread! You know the sort of thing: someone posts a perfectly innocent question on Reddit, like: “I enjoyed Paul McGann's portrayal in The Night of the Doctor – what other stories are there about the eighth Doctor's involvement in the Time War?” From which, you might expect some helpful replies, pointing them towards the Big Finish audios; then maybe mention of the War in the eighth Doctor novels, prompting an interesting discussion about whether that's a different earlier Time War, or the same event seen from another perspective. But it's not long before someone will chip in with the dread question – is any of that considered canon? It makes you want to scream. (If it needed saying, this is indeed a summary of a genuine Reddit discussion I encountered recently.)

So why does it wind me up so much? Primarily it's because the canon question is nearly always used in a negative sense – it serves to shut down debate and enquiry. I get that there are some people for whom only the tv show counts, and that's fine as long as it's their choice, not something that they feel has been imposed on them from without. (It does strike me as perverse however for someone to pile into a conversation that's clearly about spin-off media to question its canon status, as if those discussing it were simply deluded and needed the scales removed from their eyes.) For a long time Doctor Who fan like me, this idea of canon as something to be strictly observed has always seemed like an alien concept, probably imported into Who fandom as the show has become better known internationally – imported from other (that is to say American) fandoms. Don't worry, this isn't going to be a rant about them being rubbish – as a matter of fact, I like both of the chief culprits. More on them later.

But it's a fact that I just don't remember it being a thing in the old days. That's not to say that, even as a child, I didn't know the difference between the tv show and the spin-offs. But the point is, I still read the TV Comic strip or the Annuals as stories that were really happening to the Doctor. I didn't expect the tv show to reference them of course, but that didn't make them any less real for me. After all, these were stories about a character who could go anywhere in time and space, who could theoretically have any sort of adventure. The notion that they weren't like the tv show didn't really occur to me then – that had to wait until the 80s and my days as a super-nerd fanboy. Thank God the 90s (and one hopes a degree of maturity) loosened me up – with the arrival of the New Adventures (and I suppose the lack of a tv show) pushing me towards embracing Who in all its forms. Which, I guess, is why that's the decade when I first conceived The Complete Adventures.

Now, it is interesting to compare the way that other fandoms do it. Star Trek for instance: Paramount is quite insistent that only the tv shows and the movies count – none of the books or comics or other spin-offs really happened. (In fact, at some times, even the cartoon series has been in the exclusion zone – though that seems to have been done to humour the whims of Gene Roddenberry, who in later years, decided he didn't like it. After he died, the cartoon got brought back into the fold.) That doesn't mean though that Paramount hasn't been happy to license plenty of spin-offs over the years, and doubtless to reap the financial rewards. It's effectively saying: “Please buy the books, although we have no belief in them ourselves.”

What's really happening is that the producers are giving themselves a get-out clause – to free themselves from having to remember and take account of the details of fifty years of spin-offs when devising new stories. And really no one can blame them for that. It's surely hard enough just to keep track of all the tv episodes – which no doubt explains why they've contradicted themselves a good few times over the decades! What's troubling is the way that this sensible behind-the-scenes decision has been interpreted as an instruction to fans. And I think really it's the use of the word “canon” that's to blame for that. I don't know if Paramount actually used the term themselves or if it was the fans who applied it; but either way, the damage was done.

Star Wars on the other hand adopted a multi-tiered system of canon: basically anything George Lucas said was considered the topmost, unassailable level of canon – so effectively that was the films themselves – and various books and comic strips were placed on lower strata. They were to be considered as canon unless or until they were contradicted by something in one of the films. I suppose if you're going to have a canon declaration, that's the most sensible way of doing it. Effectively, it's the same as the Star Trek rationale, a way to protect Lucasfilm from having to be beholden to their own spin-offs – but it achieves it in an inclusive and less didactic fashion.

Or at least that would be the case if Disney hadn't bought Lucasfilm and fucked it all up. Now, I understand that Disney wanted to start making new Star Wars movies, and didn't want to have to take account of all that “expanded universe” stuff , which has effectively told us all about what happened to Luke, Han and Leia for the next forty odd years – and all about what happened to their kids too. Obviously that was going to contradict any new stories that they wanted to tell with those characters. Which makes it a more extreme case than that facing the Star Trek producers, I suppose. The weird thing is that Disney/Lucasfilm want to have their cake and eat it. They've announced that every book and comic produced from now on is going to be part of canon – but every spin-off produced previously is not. But they still want to market those old books (for reasons of profit one assumes) so they've rebranded them as “Legends” – literally, there's a big gold flash across the top of each book saying so. It's such an odd thing when one considers that Star Wars is a sort of fairytale that we're quite specifically told occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Aren't all their tales just legends then? Nevertheless, the most hardcore Star Wars fans seem to be happy embracing the distinction – I'm always finding YouTube videos discussing characters and their backstories, where the narrator clearly demarcates what's canon and what's only “legends”.

One of the refreshing things about Doctor Who is that the show's producers or the BBC have never tried to lay down such rules. They've never so much as uttered the word “canon” – (well, except for that one time when some PR idiot used it to tell viewers the Adventure Games could be considered part of the ongoing storyline.) Which I guess means that they trust fans to make up their own minds what they want Doctor Who to be. Some will point to the BBC charter expressly forbidding the need to purchase additional material to make a story complete – surely that proves that the spin-offs don't count? Well, I don't see that at all. I think that is specifically to ensure that the show doesn't conclude with a cliffhanger leading into a commercial spin-off; imagine the last series had ended with World Enough and Time and an announcement that the conclusion was exclusively available to buy from BBC Store. But it doesn't deny the existence of further Doctor Who material that you can buy should you choose to do so – such material can even be referenced in the show itself (and it has been) as long as it's just for colour and backstory. It can inform one's viewing and give a deeper meaning, but it mustn't be essential for the understanding of the general audience. (So I guess, as they were free for licence fee payers to download, they were allowed to plug the Adventure Games as being part of the series.) From the point of view of the producers, they have a rich seam of history to draw upon, but they don't need to feel bound to it. Of course, where Doctor Who scores over Star Trek and Star Wars is that the very nature of its narrative allows the wholesale rewriting and disregarding of its backstory anyway. We're told that time keeps getting rewritten, and I've discoursed at length before about the way the Doctor's timeline might intersect with a changing universe. The show has contradicted itself so many times that it's clear the producers aren't even interested in keeping faith with past tv episodes, let alone the spin-offs.

So we're left with the current situation, where every fan can have their own idea or interpretation of what constitutes canon. I think that's a wonderfully liberating thing, something we should all cherish – rather than fighting when another's opinion differs from our own. I can fully understand why some only want to count the tv show – it's the most easily accessible and requires the least investment in terms of time and money. But as I've said above, even that can be optional really. I'm sure there are fans who've come to Doctor Who only with the modern series – for whom even the original 26 seasons must seem like some distant legend. And some may want to include the novels but not the comic strips – or only the New Adventures – or Big Finish audios, but not books. It should be entirely up to the individual. For myself, I decided long ago that there was no “canon” as far as Doctor Who was concerned. There was just a mass of stories that happened to the Doctor.

I think ultimately I understand the purpose of the “is it canon?” question, especially when it comes from a new fan. They're looking at the daunting mass of past Who spin-offs and asking themselves if they really need to get amongst all that to understand the series. And the answer is, of course they don't. But if they want to dip their toe in, it doesn't commit them to anything. And they may find something they love. The flipside to that though is when a long term fan has decided not to indulge in the spin-offs – and that could be for any reason, it's not for us to judge – but then uses the “it's not canon” argument to justify their choices. And the worst example of this is when they use it to try and shut down discussions about material they're not familiar with. I think it's a sort of inverted self-justification, a way to belittle those whose conversations they can't keep up with. What does that achieve? Just accept that everyone gets something different out of Doctor Who, and bow out gracefully. We'd all get along a lot better.

What do these different reactions tell us about the fans of each series? I suppose no one should be surprised that Star Trek fans are so eager to swallow the dictates of Paramount. They've always struck me as the keenest to embrace rules and regulations, and bow to a higher authority. That's why they dress up in the uniforms, give themselves ranks, and act as if they're really members of Starfleet. Doctor Who of course is a story about a maverick, a pricker of pomposity, an anti-authoritarian iconoclast, and that's why the “no canon” stance seems the most appropriate, as long as we accept the choices of the individual to embrace or reject whatever they like. The Star Wars fans intrigue me though, with their quick embrace of a doublethink mentality over “canon” and “legends”. You'd think that they would be rebels, like the heroes of the series – not prepared to bow down before didactic pronouncements from the content providers. Maybe, they all secretly want to be in the Empire! Myself, I was always a fan of the Star Wars EU – some of it was shockingly bad, some of it was brilliant, but isn't that true of everything? Yet I've only bought four books since the new canon declaration, and all of those are ones set during the timeframe of the older films, so are just filling in backstory. I've not bothered with anything set post-Return of the Jedi, because I've already got a continuation of the Star Wars saga that I'm perfectly happy with. I've seen the new films, of course, and I'm quite comfortable with the notion that there are now alternative timelines. I'm just not feeling the need to invest additional time into a whole other EU. And that's my choice. But I don't call it “legends”, I just call it Star Wars.

So... canon? It really is just a load of nonsense. I like Doctor Who, I like Star Trek. Shouldn't I be happy that there are even more adventures of the Doctor or Captain Kirk for me to enjoy? I think so. Do I worry that they have some sort of sanctioned authority to exist? What we're ultimately arguing about is whether one lot of fictional tales is somehow more fictional than another lot. And frankly, I can't see any sense in that.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

What the Hell Am I Doing?

Blogging is a funny thing really – it's based on the assumption that people want to share my inane and random witterings on obscure subjects. (Maybe some of you do.) Or then again, perhaps it comes from an inbuilt desire to record my thoughts in a permanent form, without a care whether anyone reads them or not. Perhaps that's really what it is. Something like a diary, but without the more intimate thoughts. (I've never kept a diary incidentally. I tried once, in about 1986, but by the time it got to January 3rd and nothing much had happened, I soon lost interest.)

If there is anyone out there reading this stuff, you will no doubt have noticed that I haven't really written anything here for a long time (over a year – and that was a one-off after a four and a half year absence.) I think perhaps some of the problem with a blog is the need to find a focus for it. You'll look back and see that this one started as a place where I could expound on the many issues of Doctor Who continuity. And yes, I got a lot of that off my chest in the early days – but then there wasn't so much more to write about. It's more likely that a specific continuity matter would be discussed and debated on my Facebook group, without the need arising to lay down my definitive thoughts on the issue here.

So I tried a reinvention: the “Anderthon”. Do you remember that? It dominated 2011. But then that dried up the following year. I always meant to get back to it, but then the death of Gerry Anderson put a bit of a dampener on the whole thing, and I felt less comfortable about criticizing the man and his work. So it all kind of fell by the wayside. It's not that I stopped watching the Anderson shows, I just didn't want to be writing “witty” capsule reviews of them any more. There are still things I might want to say about them though, just not necessarily in that context.

And that takes me back to the original fundamental question: what is the blog for? There are things I want to say, thoughts I want to express in words. For my own satisfaction really. But they don't have to be about Doctor Who or Supermarionation or tied to any particular theme really. So what I want to do is wipe the slate clean, as it were, and say this blog isn't about anything particular. Just whatever is exercising my mind at any one time. Sometimes these might be reactions to actual events. Sometimes they might be about things long past that have only just occurred to me. Just freeform ramblings really, without the need to tie them to a particular theme or direction – because interests and enthusiasms change. I may even find myself contradicting previous entries, because opinions too can alter with time. So this blog becomes an exercise in documenting the state of my mind over time – God help us!