Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’


Ah, Death Ray, how fruitful plundering your corpse is for my blog… This article originally appeared in Death Ray 08, back in 2007, as part of our insanely crammed “Ten Minute Guide…” series. These were among my favourite articles to write; packed full of detail, and no transcribing involved. I’ve put this one up as my review of the Flash Gordon TV series of 2007/2008 is one of the most viewed articles on this site by a long, long way. General searches for “Flash Gordon” take people there, so curiosity about this primal member of the modern SF heroic pantheon still abounds.

Flash Gordon: Perennially popular cosmic adventurer

flashgordon_1cvr

The original, and the best. Click the pic for more on the comic.

Golden-haired saviour of Earth, Flash has been protecting us from the art-deco hell of Ming the Merciless’s Planet Mongo for 70 years, often in a pair of tight trunks. In a word: Pulp.

Flash’s adventures are ones of swash-buckling, over the top, Prisoner of Zenda style derring-do in space. The stories are simple stuff, simply told, their enduring popularity down to the sumptuousness of Alex Raymond’s art and the on-screen extravagance it inspired. If scantily clad slave girls, finned rocket ships, weird alien kingdoms and decadently luxuriant palaces are your thing, step this way… (more…)


I’m going to be one of a bazillion bloggers writing about Ray Bradbury today, and I probably won’t be saying much new, but he was an important writer to me and I want to say something.

I’m not much moved by the cult of fame. Like a lot of modern life, it really, really annoys me. Many celebrities don’t do much by way of justifying their exalted status. Authors in general do more to deserve approbation than some of our planet’s famed sons and daughters, toiling away on their own, but even they can be less talented than they believe, and can let their success, should the fickle vagaries of fate bestow it upon them, go to their heads. You’ll not see many posts like this from me.

Ray Bradbury was one of those who thoroughly deserved the plaudits heaped upon him, and more besides. He was one of the loose handful of SF writers whose work transcended their favoured genre and can genuinely, whole-heartedly be described as art.

Bradbury apparently had a great love of life, but what always stays with me from his work is the sense of melancholy at life passing that it evokes. Long summer nights giving way to autumn days, the bittersweet exchange of childhood for adulthood, of youth for middle-age; the thrilling slip of experience as it runs through our hands, inevitably dragging time and, ultimately, the cessation of experience behind it. Naturally, the brassy light of apple days is predominant in works he wrote later in his life, but it was always evident. Something Wicked This Way Comes epitomises these feelings for me, whose teenage hero literally sees his childhood end, as does the Martian Chronicles, where the venerable Martian civilisation has to make way for something new, as do all things in their due time.

This was a powerful message for my teenage self. I read many of his short stories and novels in the late ’80s as my own boyhood ticked closer to its conclusion. They infused my own utterly indulgent and somewhat risible sense of adolescent sorrow with a touch of nobility.

Bradbury was one of the great prose stylists of 20th Century American fiction. He had a knack for phrases that stick long in the mind, and a powerful way with imagery. There are moments from his work aplenty that have taken up permanent residence in my head – A man planting trees on Mars and an automated house’s valiant attempts to survive post-apocalyptic Earth in The Martian Chronicles. Alien guns that fire bees (bees!) from the same. Calliopes, a carousel of wishes and the balloon-borne Dust Witch sniffing her way over town in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the warped writing and chemical tang on the air encountered by returning chrononauts in “A Sound of Thunder”, Guy Montag discovering reading in Fahrenheit 451. And of course that golden sunlight.

Bradbury died yesterday, on my 39th birthday. I never met him, but I did speak to him on the phone. I tried to arrange an interview with him while on a US trip, from the LA offices of Alliance Atlantis who had produced Ray Bradbury Theater. This was in 1999, and he had not long before suffered a stroke. If I recall correctly, it was my foolish insistence on a picture (magazine policy, but a more experienced me would have known to disregard it) that prevented our meeting. Such a wasted opportunity, and one I will forever regret. Still, I feel privileged to have spoken to him at all.

My book Champion of Mars was very much inspired by Bradbury, although my talent (I’m cringing inside even using that word in relation to my own work) is like a molehill to his mountain. He’s one of the writers that opened my eyes to the fact that books could be far more than just entertainment, and how truly magical writing can be. If it weren’t for him and others like him I wouldn’t be a writer at all, and I’ll always be thankful for that.

I don’t have any reviews or pieces about Bradbury’s work directly, but here is a review of the 1980 TV mini-series The Martian Chronicles. I loved it as a child and loved it again recently, although Bradbury himself famously called it “boring”.


This is an interview with the author Gregory Maguire who wrote the novel Wicked, which was turned into a wildly successful musical of the same name. From Death Ray 05, published in 2007.

Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is an American writer with a passionate interest in children’s literature, being co-founder of a charity dedicated to furthering reading among the young.

He is primarily known for penning revisionist fantasies, often based upon well-known fairy tales. However, his most famous works take their inspiration from a more recent source. Maguire has taken L Frank Baum’s famed series of novels, borrowed his world and put his own stamp firmly upon it, often adding his own characters into crucial points of the stories, or looking at Baum’s own characters from alternative points of view. The first book, Wicked, centres on Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and portrays her as a passionate rebel rather than as a hook-nosed harridan with a nasty allergy to water. It has been adapted into a musical that has enjoyed great success both Stateside and in London town.

Guy Haley: You are very passionate about literature for children. Why do you think that is important that children read?

Gregory Maguire:  I heard a report this week that said at the age of 10, only 43% of American kids read for pleasure. At the age of 15, that has dropped to 19%. When I hear statistics like these, I fear for the loss of certain skills that imaginative reading enhances; apprehension of subtlety, ambiguity, tolerance for differences, willingness to suspend judgment until the last page (or even beyond). I think reading for children, even more than reading for adults, is central to the survival of a literate citizenry. That is why I still write for children, even though my income is much richer and stronger when I publish for adults.

GM: Tell us a bit about your organisation, the CLNE.

GH:I helped found an educational charity called “Children’s Literature New England” 21 years ago. For two decades we met (four times in the UK) and considered topics of literary interest as they are dealt with in books for children: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; “Swords and ploughshares”; and “The Fairytale belongs to the poor.” Writers and artists such as Philip Pullman, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, Ursula K Le Guin, Philippa Pearce,  Jill Paton Walsh, Penelope Lively, Peter Dickinson, Susan Cooper, Russell Hoban, John Rowe Townsend, Alan Garner, and many others collaborated with us to consider these literary themes as expressed in books for the young. This is built on the notion that children’s literature is no less an art form than novels for older readers.

GH: Why do you choose to use the “toolbox of the fantastical” to tell your tales? Do you think that fantasy is more effective at bringing messages to children (and adults) than stories with a contemporary setting?

GM: I am afraid that as a Luddite, someone who doesn’t have an iPod, a cellphone, a play station, or a digital camera, I cannot convincingly portray our increasingly technological contemporary world with any verisimilitude. So writing stories that take place in the past or in a fantastical setting makes me much more comfortable.

That said, I also think that the kind of relaxation that once must go through in order to tolerate a “magic” story might just make one more tolerant of larger themes, too, and I care deeply about the themes of my stories – more than about the plots, characters, settings, or the mechanics of magic.

GH: Some of your greatest successes have been with stories set in Oz. Why have you chosen to use L Frank Baum’s world?

GM:  Oz – unlike Middle-earth or Wonderland – is an imperfectly realized magic land. I admire much of what L Frank Baum did, but it is what he failed to do, or did less well, that allows me license to parachute into his magic kingdom and see if I can make any more sense of its history or politics than he did. Basically, I took a land of fabulous incongruity and I tried to superimpose an orderly civilisation upon it, with its own history, religions, cultural conflicts, etc – to be an anthropologist of Oz.

GH: Do you ever feel awkward, playing in the sandbox of such a renowned man?

GM: He is conveniently dead, so I am seldom embarrassed at dinner parties.

GH: You also use fairytale a lot, especially in revisionist fantasies for adults. This seems quite popular in film and literature at the moment. Why do you think that is?

GM: As we become something of a post-literate society – or perhaps I should say that as our shared literacy becomes more audiovisual and less textual – the fairy tales, like the parables, remain conveniently portable and functional vessels of story that, because we get them young – and frequently – may in fact be the final shared narrative that most people in the west can agree that they share in common.

GH: How do you feel about the success of the musical Wicked? Are musicals as valid an art form as literature in your mind?

GM: I love the musical Wicked and am buying tickets today to see it for the 26th time. It is a different art form than the novel and as such made some changes to the plot, which do not bother me. The basic theme of the story is the same as in the novel I wrote – which is that we should beware demonising our enemies, or seeing the world in absolute moral tones of black and white.

GH: You say that you enjoy English novels. Why is that?

GM: I believe the English write more delicious prose, by and large. I also grew up in a time when English writers for children were very easy to find in the libraries in the US I loved CS Lewis at the age of 10, also the books about Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, and Tom’s Midnight Garden.

There are exceptions. Among my favorite US writers living and working today are Jess Walters, Ron Hansen, and Daniel Handler.

GH:Who are your major influences?

GM: As to the Wicked cycle, I would say TH White’s The Once and Future King, Grahame Greene as to a spooky tone and sinister atmosphere, and perhaps Ursula Le Guin as to someone who took and takes fantasy writing with utmost seriousness.

Did you know?

Gregory Maguire is married to painter Andy Newman.


A profile on another top creative guy I’ve interviewed a few times now. Meeting Rob was a very rare fanboy squee moment for me, as I try hard to maintain a shell of supercilious indifference towards celebrity, but I grew up on Red Dwarf, and was very excited. I’m glad to say we hit it off, and it’s always a pleasure to see him.

This interview was conducted on the publication of his novel, Fat, in 2006, for SFX 151. Read my review of it here.

www.sfx.co.uk

Rob Grant Profile

Red Dwarf co-creator Rob Grant is feeling bullish, and there’s little that will get in the way of his iconoclastic ire. Right now his target is scientific orthodoxy, in his path the vast China shop of obesity and diet. His latest book, Fat, is a hilarious attack on the fatuous nature of statistics and how most of us swallow them whole. According to the near-future Fat, the only diet that works is the poor-quality brain food we scoff down every day, and the only thing it slims is the intellect.

Despite the tightly written nature of this eye-opening novel, its conception has the entertaining smack of low-grade charlatanry. Mr Grant made up this one on the spur of the moment, he confided in us.

It was while enjoying the fruits of his last book, the hit Incompetence, that he was called up by his agent. Grant takes up the story. “‘Let’s have a discussion about your next book. You have a two book deal and your publishers are chomping at the bit,’ my agent said, which I forget immediately, as you do. I remembered a couple of days before we met, so I went out for a drink, and thought, ‘Fat’. And literally, that’s all I had, three letters. When I went to see him and said, ‘The book – it’s fat,’ his eyes lit up. Of course I had no idea what it was going to be about, so I was doing some bullshitting and serious back-peddling, saying ‘Well, it’s very early days yet, very early days.’ Besides this, I also said, ‘Please don’t tell anyone’. I mean, I needed time! So the next day I got a phone call from my editor, ‘Hey, we love ‘Fat’, we’ve got the cover people working, and marketing are going crazy’. And I’m thinking about my agent ‘You bastard, you’re fired for a start’. The next day it was on Amazon. I was stuck with it, so I got all these books out and started researching the subject.”

Grant found himself astonished. Not only was there a book in the idea (he was relieved) but that, “Almost everything we know about diet, obesity and body image and its relationship to disease and the heart is crapulous!”

Fat seeks to set the record straight, demolishing received wisdom and lampooning the way Cartesian method has been put off the straight and narrow track.

“Take salt. There is a lack of evidence in salt’s case that it’s harmful for you in any way,” he cites. “Any substance is poisonous if taken to absolute excess,” he counters, “even water will kill you. But that six grams a day stuff is nonsense. It annoys me when the same old opinions are trotted out and aren’t backed up by any kind of scientific evidence whatsoever. For the book, I had to learn how to read statistics, which was a lot of fun, let me tell you. Now when I see some kind of nonsensical health story on the BBC website like ‘Tea causes cancer’, I am sceptical. You never get the figures, you never get the important, salient details, and you rarely get pointed to the source report. I blame journalists. I think in journalism you can either thoroughly research every story and check it out or you can write down what somebody tells you. The pay’s the same.” [Note from 2012: I am afraid he is bang on the money there. And the pay's awful].

None taken, Mr G. We can also just make it up, by the way.

“And there are whole government policies based on some ineptly conducted survey. And I mean, some of the more controversial stuff I didn’t dare put in, but I’m sure I’m going to get a backlash anyway.”

If all this is making Grant sound angry, he is not. He is as considered as ever, though he is incredulous as to how some of the rubbish he has uncovered as rubbish gets accepted as fact. He is, however, developing an intolerance for morons as he ages, of which he seems to encounter more than his share. Still, they provide fuel for his books, which seem to be leaning towards his Spitting Image days; more satire than SF.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Satire is a dirty word. In show business they say ‘Satire is what closes on Saturdays’, but I suppose there’s an element of satire in all my stuff. I am getting more real worldy, the thing is I don’t try and write to order, I write what occurs to me and hope that some bugger buys it.”

Is that his ‘You’re not pigeonholing me, I’m an artist’ statement?

“Ha, no! The whole nanny state thing drives me to distraction, We’re all grown up, let us decide if we want to have 13 year olds in carseats for ourselves. It doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight, the opposition’s embracing it too. That’s what I’m looking at in ‘Fat’.”

And now the cycle has begun again. Fat is long written, this is Grant’s first interview, and his agent hangs on the bell again, waiting for the next precious three-letter pitch. So, what sacred cows are in the firing line?

“I’ve got a queue.” He almost growls, which turns to a chuckle. “But I’ll say that climatologists better watch out…”


Here’s an interview with Joe Ahearne about his great UK vampire TV series, Ultraviolet, which was about the only decent home-grown genre thing Britain produced in the 90s. When I did this interview in 2005, it was already old news and Ahearne had move on to Doctor Who, so this was, and still is, a retrospective. I’d actually interviewed him about it twice or so beforehand, and visited the set way back when I was a young cub-nerd reporter with even worse hair than I have now. But at least I had some, I suppose.

Originally published in SFX Special Edition 22.

www.sfx.co.uk

The drought had lasted for a long, long time. We’d been holding our heads up for a promising cloud drifted over, only for it to deliver a feeble spattering of drops. The TV landscape was as dry of good genre programming as the Sahara is of Pimms.

Cast your mind back to 1998. We were nearing the end of the decade, a decade that had furnished us with the unambitious Goodnight Sweetheart, the cheap and cheerful BUGS, and the diabolical Crime Traveller. Doctor Who was long dead, the BBC refusing to bring it back. Producers who dared poke their heads above the parapets to tout SF fare shirked from calling it such, it was the genre that dared not speak its name. “We don’t do big-budget fantastical television very well, best leave it to the Americans,” many programme makers said. The BBC’s hugely expensive Invasion Earth had just aired. At £1 million an episode, and with less than stellar ratings, it seemed they were right. The flop of the Doctor Who pilot two years earlier hadn’t helped. It was the time of the cosy, clichéd Sunday night drama with vets, cops, nurses and farmers falling over each other in 1950s Yorkshire. That time looked set to last forever.

But then came a show that proved you could do decent telefantasy on a British budget and not have it look like it was made of milk bottle tops. It took a perennial horror theme, that of vampires, and put a new spin on it, a spin that would soon be echoed by the likes of Buffy and Blade. That show was Ultraviolet.

“I wrote it because I am very interested in television with a strong visual element,” says writer-director Joe Ahearne, arguably one of the hottest properties on the now revived UK genre scene. “I was always more interested in being a director than a writer, but I wrote it simply because there was nothing like that out there at the time. It was the kind of thing I wanted to direct.”

Ahearne, a softly spoken chap who often breaks into a gentle laugh as he speaks, had been working on a short film with actors Siobhan Redmond and Neil Pearson, then stars of cop drama Between the Lines. They put him in touch with John Heyman and Tony Garnette of World Productions, producers of the series. He submitted a draft of a vampire show of about four pages, and they were interested. Rather than make his show right off, they offered him a gig working on the second series of This Life. The lad who’d wanted to be a director had so impressed them with his writing that he found himself penning two episodes, and he got his wish, flexing his directorial muscles, being behind the camera on three. Once he’d proven himself on that though, the greenlight was ignited, and Ultraviolet moved into production for Channel 4.

“That was my big break rather, than Ultraviolet. Even though I wrote and directed the whole of Ultraviolet. This life was bigger, it was more in the public conscience,” he says.

This Life star Jack Davenport, who played the slightly priggish Miles, was paired with Susannah Harker as part of a secret government department tasked with hunting down the undead (interestingly, in real life  Harker is  descended from the man who inspired Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula). In the show Davenport’s character, Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield, is pitched from normal life of blissful ignorance into a terrifying world where vampires are real when his best friend, Jack Beresford, disappears on the night before his wedding. These bloodsuckers weren’t the languid fops we were used to, quaffing blood like absinthe, but predators in snappy suits who had coexisted with humanity for centuries, only, as the show slowly, terrifyingly revealed, we were making so much of a balls-up of the planet that they’d decided to and boot Homo Sapiens from the driving seat.

The series’ great innovation came in taking it all terribly, terribly seriously. The guys hunting the vampires were  grim-faced pros who had severed all ties with their previous lives to hunt down the creatures who had, naturally, done them some wrong. The vampires themselves were dangerous businessmen pursuing a hostile corporate takeover of Planet Earth Inc. The board was set, but it wasn’t the vampires that Ahearne focussed on, but their pawns.

“We found that once you’ve worked out how these people hunt vampires, there isn’t much mileage figuring out who is a vampire and who isn’t, they can find out with their gadgets. As we developed the stories from episode one we decided it was much more interesting to look at the contested characters; the humans helping the vampires.”

These ranged from folk who didn’t want to age – like the man whose mother had Alzheimer’s ­– to members of the team itself. In a great twist, it transpired Michael’s new boss, Father Pearse Harman (Philip Quast) was dying, and he is offered the vampire’s kiss. In this way Ahearne tackled several fairly weighty issues – from global warming to paedophilia – without ever over-relying on the vampires themselves. In fact, the word “vampire” is never once uttered throughout the show, the creatures of the night simply being referred to as “Code 5’s”. V for vampire, V for five in Roman numerals. The show is littered with similar clevernesses.

Ultraviolet’s use of intermediary human characters foreshadowed the later Blade film series, as it also did in its use of hi-tech vampire bashing gadgets. The members of Ultraviolet used carbon dum-dum bullets (wood, with little crosses on the tips) and alicin spray (derived from garlic). Even better, Ahearne took the idea that vampires couldn’t be seen in mirrors and extended it to modern technology – the vampire hunters carried video detectors on their guns which enabled them to determine who was a vampire and who was not. The vampires also could not be heard over electronic devices. It was so original, and the show had a substantial impact on the way vampires were represented on film and television.

“I don’t know if it really was that big an influence,” says Ahearne. “It came out here before Buffy and Blade, so it was before people had seen that kind of thing, seen vampires treated in that kind of way, though David Goyer did cite the show as an influence, which was very gratifying to hear!”

The show parts company with these American imports there. Whereas Blade and Buffy both rely on special effects, Ultraviolet deliberately avoided the use of them, having just a few in each episode.

“The trouble is, they cost so much,” says Ahearne. “Even something as seemingly straightforward as car chase takes time and money to do. When you’re shooting six hours of TV on a short timescale, you just can’t do it, even though Ultraviolet was an expensive series. I think that’s one of the big advantages of writing my own stuff, though I sometimes prefer to film someone else’s, it lets you know exactly what you can achieve from the outset. You’re not going to sit there and write ‘insert action sequence’ if you know from directing that it won’t be possible under the constraints of a TV schedule. And I think it’s the same with CG. Obviously now you can do a lot more than you could even seven years ago, but that takes time. If you give people weeks and loads of cash then they’ll come up with something really amazing, but often they don’t have that luxury so you end up with something that, well, still looks like a rubber monster!”

It may have been done for purely pragmatic reasons, but Ahearne’s reluctance to go the route of the big bang means that Ultraviolet has not become dated, something Ahearne points out happen to many older shows (he once said Blake’s 7, respected at the time, now looks like “A joke”, for example). In fact Ultraviolet still looks fresh, primarily due to Ahearne’s directorial style and his clever use of dusk and dawn light. However, this was something that made it all a little bit difficult.

“Shooting TV is not like making a film. You can’t go back and do it again if the light’s not right, and that’s another thing we had to take into account when writing the episodes. Originally the show was going to be about a vampire detective, but then I realised that it would all have to be night shoots, and that is hard. Even Ultraviolet, which we shot large parts of during the day, was logistically complicated. It was very hard work, especially directing all six episodes. That’s not something you usually do on a series like that, so it was very tiring.”

Nevertheless, as the series’ placing here demonstrates, it was all worth it. Sadly, despite its success, Channel 4 did not commission a sequel to the story. “I don’t know why,” says Ahearne, “it was one of the most successful dramas in its timeslot. Maybe they just weren’t interested. But I’m just very happy it came in the top ten here. I wasn’t aware that it had much of a life after it was shown. I mean, it’s not like Doctor Who, so I’m glad it’s still got a following.”

Its success was noted on the other side of the Atlantic. Following a route that was to become all-too familiar in following years, Ultraviolet was snapped up by the Americans to be turned into a slick, fast-paced vampire show.

“I think there was only a pilot,” he says. “I wasn’t involved in it at all. What happened was the company, World Productions, who made it sold the rights. They took Idris Elba [who played Vaughn Rice, one of Michael’s colleagues] from the British version, so there was a presence there, and I think they used quite a lot of my material for the first couple of scripts. But the problem is that I wrote Ultraviolet as a series – actually, I prefer miniseries, because if it were a series, with only six episodes, it wouldn’t have been regarded as very successful!” he laughs. “But I’d done what I wanted to do with it. If you make a series in America, it has to be able to run for five or six years, you’ve got to come up with something that can really run and run and run, because it is only when it gets into syndication that it makes its money. The thing I did wasn’t designed to do that, so I think the American version was designed as a sexy vampire soap. No criticism there,” he says, honestly meaning it, “because you have to make something that will run, and there wasn’t enough story material in mine for that. I don’t know why it didn’t work, but it didn’t.”

With no sequel forthcoming, Ahearne later went on to direct another genre treat, the sophisticated and quite scary Strange. Starring the curly headed (and surprisingly non-Welsh, after his turn in BBC2’s Coupling) Richard Coyle as a sort of ex-priestly demon-hunting Doctor Who, Strange, written by Andrew Marshall, ripped up the carpets of reality to show us all the paranormal nasties lurking beneath. Ahearne, with his dual-stranded career as writer/ director now ell-established, brought a lot to the six episodes as director.

“Because I write, when I’m directing someone else’s work, I don’t mess around with it. Although many TV companies like to put writer/directors to work on scripts that they haven’t written, I always try and respect what someone else has written, I think if they wrote something then that’s what they meant, they don’t want you to go and change it.” The show marked a bit of a departure for him, as he had been primarily a comedy writer, working on a string of BBC hits, from bizarre 1980’s laugh-fest The Kenny Everett Television Show to the wryly amusing 2point4 Children.  “He is a really funny guy,” says Ahearne. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine the creator of the George Cole vehicle Dad penning a show about demons, but pen it he did and it worked well. There was to be no second season for this series either.

Strange was different to Ultraviolet,” says Ahearne. “Again it was a very expensive show, but I don’t think it was quite as successful. It was a bit more exposed than Ultraviolet, the BBC put it out at 9.00 – prime time, so it had more to prove. Ultraviolet was always going to be a bit culty going out when it did. But it’s very difficult to decide where to pitch your show, what slot it fits into.” Indeed, perhaps this lack of an easy pigeonhole may explain why there was a lengthy gap between the initial pilot and the series.

Right now Ahearne is prepping for his next big project ­- Double Life, a film starring Christopher Eccleston, late of Doctor Who fame. Produced by Sophie Belhetchet, who got Ultraviolet on screen, it is a story of obsessive love with an SF twist.

“It’s difficult to describe what it is without giving too much of the plot away,” says Ahearne. “And I don’t want to do that. We’re at too early a stage. But it does have SF elements to it. It’s more about love and relationships really, but I think I will probably look at it and describe it as a genre piece,” he says, explaining his caginess, but Ahearne is not being trying to divert us, nor is he trying to cast wide the net of appeal. It’s not a case of “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction, not science-fiction”, as the producer of The Last Train said to SFX. This is not a man who is afraid of genre labels. “It’s just that it’s one of those dramas where the SF doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the story so you don’t really want to describe it as such. We will, be able to talk about it in more detail in a few weeks, but not right now.”

The film starts shooting in Budapest later this year, set for a theatrical release in 2006. We’ll just have to see how SF the flick will be, but if one thing is certain, Joe Ahearne ­– the man who helped end the genre drought on British television – will not disappoint us.

Ahearne on Doctor Who

“I was really happy to get the job on Doctor Who,” Ahearne says. Something everyone who worked on it felt, no doubt, as rumour has it people were very keen to be involved. “I don’t know what to say about it without saying the same old thing, there’s only so much you can say about working on a TV show where everyone’s happy to be there and working hard. It was a bit of a reunion for me, actually, as the production designer on Ultraviolet, John Bellington, worked on Doctor Who. I had a similar problem with him too! He made such a good job of the incarceration chamber on Ultraviolet that I was always disappointed I’d not set more scenes in there, but by the time I saw it it was too late to change the script. It was the same with the TARDIS, the set was amazing, and huge, and I thought it a shame there weren’t more bits in my episodes in it. But you can’t dictate to the characters where they’re going to go, they go where the story needs them to be,” he says. He is full of praise for the cast and crew. “Russell T Davies got a great team together, and Christopher Eccleston is such a great actor, that I don’t think they could have done it any better than they did.”

But it wasn’t all roses, at first, Ahearne was only booked for a couple of episodes, but in the end did six – “Bad Wolf”, “Boom Town”, “Dalek”, “Father’s Day”, and “The Parting of the Ways”. All the really cool ones, you might think, but Ahearne points out a problem with it. “When you do that many episodes, it takes a lot of time. They did all of it in Cardiff, pre-production, post-production, everything. It took nine months, which meant I had to move there, basically, so it was hard being away from home so long. But,” he says, and you can hear the smile in his voice, “I don’t think for a man like me, who’s interested in visual spectacle, you could have better job than directing episodes of Doctor Who where he’s fighting the Daleks.”


Stephen Baxter wrote a very nice review for SFX magazine of my latest book, Champion of Mars, so I thought I’d put up this interview I did with him for Death Ray 07 in late 2007. The interview was conducted to publicise his book, H-Bomb Girl, and was published before the death Arthur C Clarke, who Baxter talks about below.

Q&A Stephen Baxter

The Scouse author’s latest book takes him tumbling back in time to 1960′s Liverpool and the palm-sweating height of the Cuban missile crisis. Only it’s just that little bit different. Yep, the bone fide scientist (he has three degrees) and scribe of fantastical far futures is exploring his other favourite subject, alternate histories, once more.

Guy Haley: Unlike a lot of authors, who tend to write in one world or on one theme,  you often change subject matter between hard SF and alternative history. Why is this?

Stephen Baxter: I think that’s true, and it doesn’t always do me the best of favours. Changing your strategy isn’t very good for your publishers. It goes back to right at the beginning of my career, my first couple of novels were hard SF, and I think that that’s my basic brand, but my third novel was Anti-Ice, which was an alternate history, of the kind that H-Bomb Girl is. I think it’s better to have a wider range of inetrests and I like to keep myself fresh by finding new ways of telling stories, and new avenues to explore.

GH: Do you get bored then, with one creation?

SB: I wouldn’t say bored, each book is the best book I’ve got in me at the time if, but I have to rip myself out of one particular thing after a while, when I’ve mined the seam, and move onto something entirely different. In fact I’ve been prolific the last few years, a couple of books a year, and that’s partly by alternating – I have a hard SF series on the go and then young adult like H-Bomb Girl or the Mammoth books.

GH: You’re working very hard. The third Time’s Tapestry book has just come out, and now this. That’s a lot of writing.

SB: I’ve always had a work ethic. I didn’t give up my day job until after The Timeships was published. I was working full-time up to that point, I was commuting to London as well, so I was working in the evenings and the weekends. I’ve always tried to keep to the habit of using time well.

GH: What attracts you to alternate history?

SB: I’ve always been interested in history for as long as I have been interested in science, and then alternate history is the different possibilities and the contingency of everything. I mean, you look back in your own life and see how things could have been different if you’d made a different choice – like meeting your wife for the first time, if you’d stayed at home that day things would have been entirely different. The present is as contingent as the future.

And the notion of the past as well is very interesting. I mean, trying to write my way into Liverpool of 1962, it’s like an alien planet, everything’s different. I think the mobile phone especially is a huge disjunction between the present and the past, I expect 1985 was a lot more like 1962 than now, just because the phones and other communication technologies have changed everything about the way we live.

One of my impulses behind H-Bomb Girl is that in each age we have an apocalypse, the moment it’s the green apocalypse isn’t it, where we’ll be fighting over the last scraps of water in 100 years’ time, but when I was growing up it was the Cold War. We weren’t going to grow old because the computers were going to unleash a nuclear holocaust that was going to just end everything. Absolutely terrifying. And I think looking back to the previous generation, for them it was the Second World War. The pre-war generation were terrified of the coming war. Well, it was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Each generation has a horror show ahead. So I thought it might be interesting to write for a modern generation of teenagers about the fears of a previous generation of teenagers. I wouldn’t want to diminish the challenges of climate change, but I suspect we’re going to muddle through somehow.

GH: Will you be working with Arthur C Clarke again?

SB: Yes, in fact we’ve been working on another new book, the Time Odyssey Series. It’s called First Born and it’s going to be out next year from Gollancz.

GH: How do these collaborations work?

SB: They generally start with a four or five-page outline from Clarke, but they’re really open-ended, you’ll have what becomes the kind of first chapter and plot threads, but generally without a resolution, so then we bounce that backwards and forwards by email until we’ve got an outline that we agree with and then off we go.

He was ninety this year. I’ll be happy if I’m as mentally active as he is when I’m that age.

GH: You are from Liverpool. What was it like going back in time?

SB: Well, I wasn’t even five when the Cuban Missile Crisis kicked off, so in a way it was looking back to a time just before I can remember really. So it was interesting. It’s not autobiographical but it’s like that. It’s looking at a place I know well bu through different eyes and describing it from an outsider’s point of view.

The great thing that I turned up in research from my point of view was that the Beatles played in my old school! In 1961, in one of their many sort of cavern era mini-gigs. It was a Christian brothers school and they got thrown out apparently. All the teddy boys rioted. I didn’t see my school in the same way after that, I’d stood on the same stage where the Beatles played. That era’s become a bit mummified in a way, sentimentalised, but it was like a punk explosion really, all radical, very unpopular with the grown-ups.

GH: Everyone always blames the kids! Teddy boys, Mods, Punks, now hoodies…

SB: I think it’s just jealousy, everyone wants to be young again. Youth is wasted on the young, they say. But again we muddle through. It’s as if we think we’re the last sane generation and they’re all mad and dissolute behind us. But they’re not, people mature and grow up.