Thursday 20 July 2017

A Regiment of Monstrous Doctors

Doctor Who

Jodie Whittakers first promo photos put me in mind of Peter Davidson. I think it's the blond, slightly floppy hair. Davidsons Doctor is great. I love his vulnerability, his uncertainty, nervousness. Could the writers possibly dare put these character traits into the form of a woman? I wonder. Will she umm and aah, and pull a packet of jelly-babies out? Like Tom Baker did.  Or even gasp wide eyed and breathless at her own short-sightedness like McGann. Or is she doomed to a fate of stoically earnest competence, with some occasional manic grins, weighed down by heavy expectations like Eccleston.  I hope the clock has been reset, this complete regeneration cycle (that's the next 12 Doctors) stays female, and I hope like the last 12 Doctors, that we get a diversity of characters, that we get a diversity of writers and approaches, that all those expectations of what a female Doctor could be don't have only one chance to be met.

Classic Who was always a kids show with elements of education, adventure, sci-fi and kooky weirdness bereft of budget.   New Who moved towards the spectacular, the romantic, increasingly tear-jerk ridden story lines, like those cloyingly sentimental banking adverts desperate to generate cultural capital and put on a human face after bankrupting the financial system. Infantile stories about returning lost wooly jumpers and slow motion versions of Warhorse over a soundtrack stolen from some plonky acoustic cover of a vaguely nostalgic pop-song. Doctor Who degenerated into an endless twee department store chain Christmas advert with an Dickensian ghost which turns out to be yet another lone Dalek hiding under a tea stained bed sheet, defeated by hot butter dripping from freshly toasted crumpets messing up the aliens wiring.

And then the bombast. The pontification. The soliloquies. No longer there to solve the problem of the week, a weird alien in a quarry in Essex or the invasion of a warehouse by vikings, the Doctor now seems to has to save the whole universe. No. Not just the universe, but all of space and time itself - as if the cosmic balance itself were embedded in The Doctor or otherwise a Companion. Like some kind of Gallifreyan Aslan on the Stone Table, saviour of humanity in all its multifarious flavours through unleashing midiclorian timelord dna particle whatsit hand-wavey timey-wimey deep magic bunkum stuff. One almost wills Erekose to turn up and drive his black sword through him to put an end to this pretentious dishevelled scone eating tyranny.

Then there's the horror. The horror. No doubt fuelled by swelling fx budgets, increasingly visual, and decidedly adult orientated, while supported by scripts that were increasingly verbose and conceptually infantile. Was Waters of Mars really supposed to be a family show?

Family evening TV

That's not "hide behind the sofa, there's a dustbin with a sink plunger coming", it's George A. Romero  (may he rest in peace) zombie horror, but without the subtlety, message or intelligence to back it up. Russell T. Davis can pontificate about childhood scares all he likes, he's not a parent. I'm not letting my kids go anywhere near that, any more than I would let them near my vintage VHS collection of zombie films. And it's not just Waters of Mars, it's the Weeping Angels with their strobe-lights and flashing teeth,  and countless other monsters where horror-tropes stepped over the invisible force-feild of appropriate. Then there is the adult relationship dross.

Young kids have no need for stories about boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, or girlfriend-girlfriend and boyfriend-boyfriend for that matter. Bills constant "Nah. I don't do boys" refrain. So what? It doesn't matter love, 10 year olds could not care less. And if they did, they'd pick up on the cues. Show, don't tell. Think about it. Children of my generation all knew Hank had a thing for Diane. We all knew that the Scooby Gang were a polyamorous dog-share club. We all vaguely worried how The Smurfs might go forth and multiply, but were happy for the little blue guys anyway. The stories didn't have to tell us these things, the characters didn't need to say it. We were smart kids. We knew what was going on, we could read the signs. I struggle to imagine who this stuff is really aimed at, too sentimental and thinly written for adults. Too gruesome and horrific for kids. Doctor Who seems to have lost its way, and on it's way, kept losing it's audience.

As Laurie Penny rightly wrote in the New Statesman: "Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room."  In 2017, it has long been recognised that girls are out-performing boys academically, that out-thinking everyone else in the room is, in schools across the country, what girls do  - strangely like Susan in An Unearthly Child. Making The Doctor a girl doesn't feel like a radical move, it's just recalibrating to adequately describe the status quo.

Nina and the Neurons

Do You Know? Maddie Moate
Or yes indeed, we can take our patented gender-o-meter to the Cbeebies science page:  and you'll see it is dominated by images of women. My gender-o-meter counts 4 males. Two of those are Messy Monster, who is a kind of sock-eating Totoro-rabbit (Okido magazine is a great early years science magazine by the way) the other two are the same man. There are 9 images of females,  6 different people. None of the males appear independently of a female, whereas several of the females appear unaccompanied. None of the males are looking at, or engaging with the viewer.  My gender-o-meter is indicating a very strong feminine bias. If representation and gendered self-image matter (and I'm not completely convinced they do at the target age group in question) then girls in the early years demographic are being well served.

Assuming we're not facing a post-apocalyptic return to the dark ages and some form of eternal agrarian hell where the UKs economy reliant on jam exports, there is a societal problem when our best and brightest (who happen to be girls) are turned off the science, engineering and technology fields. Boys are being failed by the system, so we're going to expect girls to pick up the slack in the employment market. Remember, the BBC is pretty much a government agency, and it has a job to do. Arguably, a female Doctor Who - the central character in a science fiction show aimed at a higher age-range than Nina and Maddie, might just bridge the gap and keep girls inspired by science.

Except, despite popular ignorance, Doctor Who isn't really science fiction and The Doctor doesn't really do science or engineering or technology. Doctor Who does a fantastic job of showing humanity, wisdom, compassion and kindness - so uncommon for a male protagonist - but then swiftly let's it down with emotional shouting, martyr-complexes and deus-ex-machina plotlines. A man-sized fairy running around with a magic wand called a 'sonic screwdriver' that solves all his problems, whilst travelling in a TARDIS that he can't fix properly which gains and loses powers as required by the storyline with no recourse to logic, technology or physics. Magic in the garb of pseudo-science. Strangely not unlike how beauty products are marketed, here comes the science bit.

If we want a Doctor Who that really lives up to it's potential, then the series needs to have Science Fiction, the proper-stuff, with ideas and concepts about science at the very heart of its storytelling. Not fantasy and self-absorbed soap operatic melodrama in sci-fi drag. Perhaps I am asking too much. TV, and media people in general aren't great at communicating science, beyond the Twilight Zone, it's difficult to think of proper original sci-fi on TV that wasn't straight adaptation (yes, space opera and space westerns abound). The Science Museum and the Wellcome trust do great curational work, but transforming that into engaging narrative takes a different skillset.  Sophie Dauvois and Rachel Ortas at Okido do great work for early years, could they up their game to a pre-teen audience? Where's Maggie Philbin when we need her? Derek Meddings modelling the inspiring mega-engineering feats of the Thunderbirds? Hard science fiction hasn't been in vogue for a long time.  It's hard to imagine where the talent pool to write and direct a decent Doctor Who would come from.

Interestingly the new 'show-runner' Chris Chibnall, previous work in the Doctor Who universe on the admittedly more adult orientated Torchwood gave us this:

Caroline Chikezie as Cyberwoman
I have zero problems with afrofuturist gynoids in metallic spiderweb swimsuits and fetish hoods. Zero.  But I'm a  happily married 40-something year old bloke with a stack of vintage Heavy Metal comics in the loft, which, because I'm not completely irresponsible, I don't let my children read, yet. But we do know that at least once, when pondering the question "what happens when high technology and the feminine meet", Chris wasn't afraid to answer that question by putting a sexy woman in silver latex underwear on screen. Chris also made Broadchurch, which was a rainsoaked teary eyed, mopey soap-opera dressed up as a police procedural. Unfortunately none of this bodes well for a strong, family orientated, feminist, science led adventure programme.

Then to return to my earlier point in space-time. Girls are currently ahead academically, and a fictional heroine who represents their triumphs is great. A wonderful thing, reflective of where we are. A heroine who out-smarts, and displays their humanity, questioning and tolerance as well as their understanding and knowledge.  But I can't help but feel for the boys who getting left behind, the boys who go on to commit knife crime, the boys who will grow up to join the largest demographic at risk of suicide and all the issues that suggests. The boys who've been failed by the magic Doctor, who can just wave problems away with his magic wand rather than solve them. The boys who get a Spider-man who is granted a hand up the superhero-career ladder from his weapons grade father-replacement figure at Stark Inc. rather than struggle through life through hard work and application, and achieve on his own merits. Boys whose media landscape only features fictional male heroes who solve problems with their fists, their bolt-guns, their laser-swords. It is no wonder that working class white boys are the demographic who are achieving least academically.

And then the media explodes, railing against any criticism of the changing of the gender of a major character that's not only been on screen since 1963 but provides a fictional role-model that studiously avoids worst aspects of 'toxic masculinity' (although the Doctors mansplaining was off the charts) with calls of 'petulant man-babies', gloating over 'man tears', characterising people who dared voice dissent as 'creatures born to hate'. As if such childish hyperbole is any way to speak of people whose emotions and culture and experiences you do not share and do not understand.

Maybe the girls really do need The Doctor after all.

Thursday 13 July 2017

An Interview with Derek Hayes

Presenting an interview with BAFTA award winning animator, director, designer and one time White Dwarf cover artist, Derek Hayes.

White Dwarf #8 Cover by Derek Hayes

Way back in 1978 you produced a dramatic cover painting for Games Workshops Roleplaying Games Magazine, White Dwarf #8, featuring characters from The Valley of the Four Winds story, game and range of miniatures.  How did the cover commission come about?

As I recall, the commission came about because, after film school, I was living near the offices (housed in a comic shop, I think) and I went in to see if I could rustle up some work. They lent me the miniatures to work from.

Valley of the Four Winds, Wind Demon Miniature

Valley of the Four Winds 'Unknown Release'  Wizard

To be honest, when I took the artwork in, I expected to get some feedback and to do some more work on it but they took it and paid me for it. I thought they didn’t actually like it, and I only found out much later that they had used it.
Well, I certainly like the cover, has a bold energy, much more dynamic than much of the imagery at the time. That would have been Games Workshops 1 Dalling Road, Hammersmith offices. Were you involved much with early fantasy gaming scene in the 1970s , play Dungeons and Dragons?

I don’t want to start off by disappointing you, but I’ve never really been into gaming, or sport for that matter, I’m completely cack-handed with both and I tend to forget the rules and wander off to do something else.

I do remember visiting a friend of mine who was one of the first people to put computers into sound mixing desks and watching him play an early computer game that had no graphics, just a list of instructions you typed in like, “pick up the amulet”, etc. It was hardly a spectator sport, so I tiptoed away and did something else.

Haha! We'll have to avoid those twisty turney passages . Fantasy and mythology seem to be recurring themes in your films. Skywhales (1983) Y Mabinogi / Otherworld (2003), and arguably the biblical adaptations Elijah (1996) and Miracle Maker (2003) Is there something that draws you to these kind of stories?

I’ve always been an avid reader and after reading everything in the infant school bookcase, especially the stories about the lives of animals (the title of one sticks in my mind to this day; ‘Shag the Caribou’) I moved on to the history stories of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease. They were rich with well-researched and brilliantly imagined descriptions of different times and were exciting too. Back then we also got taught a lot of the legends of the Greek and Norse heroes and gods, so that fed into my imaginative life.

Then I got the bug for science fiction and that was all I read for quite a few years. Along the way I managed to find a lot of books that I thought were sci-fi but are generally not called that by those who talk about “literary fiction”; things like Brave New World, 1984 or The Aerodrome by Rex Warner. This attitude annoys me intensely, especially when some ‘literary’ author is lauded for coming up with something that sci-fi authors had explored, often better, years before.

I was reading fantasy stuff too, and I loved books like Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings, but I never got on with magic as well as I did science and I think the question that starts, “What if…?” is something that always drives me to explore different ideas. The question of different, maybe better, ways to live is something I like to explore, as well as looking at the way humans behave in different situations and circumstances.

Looking at one of your earlier pieces, Skywhales (1983) -  there are some lovely moments in there - the contrast between the fluid motion of the Skywhales and the clanking sky-boats of the primitive peoples. The creature and landscape designs are very striking, and setting it in an entirely alien culture is a brave move for fantasy which tends to rely on a human (or proxy-human) protagonist. What were some of the influences going in to making this piece? 

I’ve always enjoyed those stories that have their ending in their beginning, in that you find out something as you go along that was planted, perhaps without you noticing, earlier on, and there were a couple of sci-fi stories that described some kind of weird evolution that were an influence. I’ve conveniently forgotten which ones they were though, so I can’t go back and look at how much I stole from them!

My co-director Phil Austin, who I met at art school and with whom I worked for eighteen years was also a sci-fi fan and we shared the same love of comics and he designed the creatures in the film. (the planet is called Perle and they are therefore Perlians; though there is no way we could tell you that in the movie, since it is all alien dialogue) The design is influenced by underground comic artist Vaughn Bodē, whose work we liked a lot. The film ‘Fantastic Planet’ (‘La Planete Sauvage’, Rene Laloux, 1973) which we saw at art school was also something of an influence.

Another thing I like to do is to think a lot about the setting of a story and try, with the help of a bit of research, to work out all the aspects of an invented society so that it may look weird but everything in it will ring true. So the idea of plants that synthesized a lighter than air gas, allowing them to float above a planet blanketed in much thicker, denser gases was something that I worked on developing as a believable setting.

We wanted to see if we could generate sympathy for a non-human race of characters and do it without dialogue. Then we decided to make it more interesting by adding dialogue, but in an alien language, so we wrote a script for what the characters were saying and got the actors to do it in Perlian. That took a little while to work out and all the early attempts at an alien language came out sounding like some fake Eastern European language, but in experimenting, one of the actors came up with the idea of making noises on the in-breath rather than the normal out-breath.

The fact that we had a proper script meant that the actors could get the correct emotion for a scene and also repeat a sound if they spotted a repeated word, which made for a more realistic feel.

That's an incredible amount of world-building, but I think the labour really pays off in the end result. Looking back at Skywhales now, I can’t help but compare James Camerons Avatar (2009) - the sky island, ‘primitive’ spiritual aliens, interconnected cycle of life,  oddly compound by the lettering and typography. Do you see echoes or reflections of your own films in later works?

I’d like to think James Cameron was influenced by Skywhales; then I could get a hot-shot American lawyer to get me some of those millions he made out of it!

I think though, that certain things are in the atmosphere and people tend to come up with similar stories and settings; we can always point back to things like Roger Dean’s album covers with floating rocks and before that Magritte’s paintings (Castle of the Pyrenees 1959), that may well have influenced both Skywhales and Avatar.

Castle of the Pyrenese - Magritte - 1959

Slightly more recently, the more earthly Y Mabinogi/Otherworld (2003), a dramatisation of the famous Welsh mythological cycle. Again there is some very strong character design with naturalistic historical costuming of the human characters. What kind of research went into those designs?

Efnesian - Otherworld (2003) - Derek Hayes 

I did a huge amount of research and was aided by some very good researchers who gave me books to read and found out lots of interesting facts about Celtic life and ideas. As I say, I like to do research and think that it is one of the most important things you can do if you want to come up with something that is different and original. There is a lot to be said for looking at what your contemporaries are doing but I always tell my students that you need to go to a broad range of sources, especially older ones, if you are to avoid doing a watered down version of someone else’s ideas and research.

So I looked at the things that exist in museums from Celtic culture and Roman depictions of Celts as well as medieval life (fashions didn’t change that fast in those days!).

The horse-skulled wicker-man particularly effective character design in its medieval-supernatural folk-horror vibe.
The Wicker-man - Otherworld (2003) - Derek Hayes

The wicker-man idea was a response to a very particular problem in the story that, in the original, never describes the ‘thing’ that comes out of the mist to try to steal a colt from a stable. The colt’s owner chops off the creature’s arm when it reaches in to grab the foal and, after chasing the thing into the darkness, he returns to find a baby underneath the severed arm. I was left wondering where the monster had managed to keep the baby while reaching through the wall; under his armpit? The wicker-man is based on Julius Caesar’s description of Celtic sacrifices in his ‘Conquest of Gaul’ (though scholars often regard this as propaganda put out by the victor) so the idea that it was a wicker creature that carried humans within its structure helped solve a puzzle that an oral storyteller could sidestep by waving his arms around and growling, but had to be shown in a film. The horse’s skull on top, of course, was influenced by what research told me about the Celtic veneration of the horse, and the old folk traditions of the Hobby Horse that still parade through some British country towns on May Day.

Along side the fantasy/mythology, there is also a strain of dystopian and quite violent sci-fi that runs throughout. Although very different stylistically and narratively, The Victor (1985), Arcadia (1988) both reference gaming or game-like activities and blend fantasy/reality. Both films also have a darkly satirical core, what would you say drove that?

Interestingly, both of those films have their genesis in a single image that was then embroidered upon. I sometimes (often when half awake) get a picture that appears in my head and I find I have to work out what it is about and what the story attached to it is. In this case it was a simple image of a soldier running across a battlefield as bolts of light shot vertically down at him – something definitely influenced by the kind of arcade games that were everywhere at the time.

The Victor (1985)

In the case of The Victor it combined with the idea of drug experiments on soldiers that I’d seen in the documentary that ends the film, and in Arcadia it was the more comedic idea of flipping the situation so that real life was like a space invader game and arcade games were a respite from that.

In both cases the real concern was with the nature of human aggression, a subject I’d been concerned with for a long time. The question, “are humans naturally aggressive or more naturally co-operative, and why?” was something I’d been reading about and ruminating on.

Arcadia (1988)

As a personal aside, I’d like to say that The Victor (seen late night on Channel 4 if I remember correctly) for it’s mix of stylish hyper-violence and anti-authoritatian leanings, left a huge impression on my friends and I, very much in keeping with the Battle Action and 2000AD comics we were reading, and Victors cross-hair nose and sideways mouth dominated our schoolbook graffiti drawings for a while!
The Victor Concept Art by Lin Jammet

Well, I’m flattered to hear that; I’m a big comics fan and 2000AD was one that I collected from the start. When Phil and I started our company, Animation City, we got a grant to develop an animated feature film idea and we got Mike McMahon, acclaimed Judge Dredd artist, and Ian Gibson (Robo Hunter), to do design work for it. Mike did designs for Elijah and The Miracle Maker later as well.

For The Victor we used an artist called Lin Jammet, who walked in off the street with his portfolio one day. We loved his designs and were determined to work with him but it took us a year before we found something, which turned out to be a New Year ident for Channel Four. Soon after that we got the commission for The Victor and got him back to design the whole thing.

Arcade Attack (1981) also has gaming characters as a central theme. There’s a strong stylistic contrast between the organic Pinball back-glass characters (I can see shades of John Buscemas Conan and Hajime Sorayama’s gynoids in there - were these references to actual pinball art?) and the neon digital Tron-like Space Invaders, which I imagine the retrowave kids would get a lot out of!

As you guessed the Arcade Attack references came from those sort of sources, all of our comic book influences filtered through some of the actual pinball machine back-glasses and video games of the time.

Similarly, both The Victor, the titles for Jeeves and Wooster use purely abstract forms. In todays world where everything seems to tends towards photo-realist CGI, is there still room for expressive use of style and pure abstraction?

As for expressive style and abstraction, there’s lots of that going on; you can see really amazing films like that at any animation festival and some of it gets into the mainstream via music videos and ads.

As Course Director for the BA(Hons) Animation & Visual Effects in Falmouth, you must see an extraordinary amount of talent pass through the doors. Not asking you to play favourites, but are there any animators or films in the Fantasy/Sci-fi genre that readers of this blog should follow up?

There’s lots of interesting stuff out there at the moment and a lot of it is available online; one of our graduates, Olly Skillman-Wilson has been doing some lovely work on a sci-fi game called ‘The Signal from Tolva’.

Signal from Tolva - Concept At

You can also see one of my favourite, abstract films from the course by Lydia Pourmand:

Lydia Purmand - Illusion of Chaos - Youtube

As for other weird and wonderful stuff, check out:

Thanks for the tip-offs, there is some extraordinary work that really deserves exposure. What about your own work, do you have plans for any new fantasy or sci-fi projects in the pipeline?

Like most directors or writers I have lots of projects that I’d love to bring to the screen, some old, some new and most of them sci-fi or fantasy.

I have a live action and CG feature film project called Doodles that is at third draft script stage; Sects, a live action tale of weirdness at an old hotel; a couple of animated kids’ series and some shorts.

I’m actually scheduled to shoot a very short live action film called ACME, about an assassin who runs up against some rather unusual setbacks, this summer, and I have another animated film that I’ve been working on for some time that I hope to complete very soon.

ACME Sounds very intriguing, and again returning to the theme of human violence. Have you considered revisiting any of your old worlds? We’d love to see a series expanding the worlds and themes of The Victor or Skywhales!

People have asked me about something to expand on Skywhales and, though I initially thought the circular nature of the story would work against taking it further, I have come up with an idea that would use the setting for a bigger adventure; all I need is some time to write it!

Do you have much involvement in the gaming world these days?

As for fantasy gaming I, and my colleagues at Falmouth, are doing our best to send graduates out into the industry ready to come up with new and interesting ideas that will be the games that grab everybody’s attention in the future. Having had lots of fun in a great industry, the least I can do is try to give something back.

Well, many thanks for your time in answering my questions, and supplying the artwork to help illustrate this post. I could keep going on all day, especially about world-building and thematic story-telling. It's been a real privilege to talk with you and share your views with readers of this blog. If any  of the long time readers haven't seen The Victor or Skywhales, seek them out and watch at the first opportunity.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Planström Dungeon Floorplan System Set Two : Furniture & Stairs

Expand your Planström Dungeon Floor Plan System with Planström Set Two : Furniture and Stairs, the first expansion set for the Planstöm 25mm dungeon floorplan system.  

Sample Dungeon built from Planström Set 1 and Set 2
Planström Set Two: Furniture and Stairs contains 2 DIN Black and White, printer-friendly A4 sheets, with artwork designed to fit both US Letter paper and A4 for you to print, cut and play. 

Planström Set Two

Red lines indicate the optimum suggested cutting of each Planström sheet so it fits comfortably and connects with the rest of the Planström system. 

Planström Sheet 2A: Furniture Cutting Guide 
Planström Sheet 2A consists of 40 individually designed pieces of dungeon furniture.
  • 3 Large 3x2 tables
  • 1 long 1x2 bench or bookcase
  • 3 long 1x2
  • 1 large well
  • 1 demon idol
  • 1 double bed
  • 1 single bed
  • 2 small wells
  • 6 chests
  • 7 Trapdoors
  • 4 barrels
  • 1 hole
  • 1 manhole cover
  • 1 scrying orb
  • 1 treestump
  • 1 circular pool
  • 5 suspicious liquids
These tiles are designed to be placed on-top of an empty Room of Planström Set One: Rooms, Corridors & Doors.

Planström Sheet 2B: Stairs Cutting Guide 
Planström Sheet 2B: Stairs consists of 29 unique drawings of dungeon staircases:
  • 8 1x1 quarter spiral stairs
  • 4 2x2 quarter spiral stairs
  • 2 1x2 staircase
  • 7 1x1 staircase
  • 1 1x5 staircase
  • 1 2x4 staircase 
  • 4 2x2 staircase
  • 2 1x3 staircase

Staircases are designed to be placed at the ends of Corridors, placed in the corners of Rooms, or on the outside of Room tiles as convenient markers for exits to lower levels and higher levels of your Planström dungeon compex, and to create strategic vantage points within a dungeon level.