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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

32 Comments

  1. Carey
    August 3, 2012 @ 12:50 am

    The nature of Doctor Who's relationship to "epic" is summed up succinctly by Steven Moffat in the rather wonderful podcast commentary that accompanied "Silence In The Library" (worth a listen to by every Doctor Who fan as it features Moffat, Russell T Davies and David Tennant talking passionately about the programme they love). He describes Doctor Who as "men in a room talking urgently," and, in all honesty, reveals the flaws in fandom's belief that epic equates to quality. The best Doctor who, as you so rightly says, balances the epic with the small scale, so we have Genesis of the Daleks (possibly one of the most epic classic era stories ever made) featuring the destruction of two ancient civilisations after a thousand year war seen predominantly from a bunker situated half way between the two.

    Likewise, humanity is almost destroyed and Earth's original rulers are incredibly close to reclaiming their planet in the Silurians, but much of this is witnessed from an underground nuclear research centre. It's the attempts at making epic action stories where doctor who seems to fall down: for all the momentum of Rememberance of the Daleks, I find the Happiness Patrol far more effective (and, in its own way just as epic: the Doctor destroys civilisations in both, but the Dalek civilisation is one we barely know, while Terra Alpha's is far more recognisable, and therefore one we care about.

    And this is something the best of the new series seems to realise: PArting of the Ways is one of he most effective series climaxes precisely because the destruction of much of the Earth is reflected in small scale by the Daleks assault on the Gamestation. Millions may die, but we are moved by the tragedy of Lynda With A Y.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the Virgin Novels.

    Oh, and as a by your way, are you going to include the BBC's 1992 tv series "Virtual Murder" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_Murder) in the blog: a quality attempt at tv fantasy that was a failure for a variety of reasons, and an indicator of both what any returned Dr Who series should and shouldn't do. And features Jon Pertwee in one episode as a Spanish arsonist. I thought it remarkably good, but as with most British tv fantasy in the 1990's it was a critical and ratings failure, although much of the later should be blamed on broadcasting it in a 9.30-ish Friday evening slot.

    Reply

  2. Scott
    August 3, 2012 @ 2:21 am

    "And this is something the best of the new series seems to realise: PArting of the Ways is one of he most effective series climaxes precisely because the destruction of much of the Earth is reflected in small scale by the Daleks assault on the Gamestation. Millions may die, but we are moved by the tragedy of Lynda With A Y."

    Agree 100%. To take a non-Who example, I remember someone effectively summing the appeal of the "Lord of the Rings" in that while there's all sort of epic battles and conflicts happening all around them, the true appeal lies in the fact that it all ultimately hinges on two little hobbits walking through the mountains trying to get rid of a ring.

    Conversely, I think the worst of the new series has a tendency to happen when they go for epic without keeping this in mind (or perhaps rather when the 'everyday' aspect isn't interesting enough to justify the 'epic' aspect).

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  3. Scott
    August 3, 2012 @ 2:22 am

    (Whoops — this was supposed to be a reply to Carey BTW.)

    Reply

  4. elvwood
    August 3, 2012 @ 4:57 am

    Ah, Atom Bomb Blues – my second encounter with the seventh Doctor (the TV Movie was first), and also the first Doctor Who novel I read. I picked it up at the library out of curiosity, not expecting much; and then kept on reading. I didn't know who Andrew Cartmel was, or Ace, and had only a vague idea of this incarnation of the Doctor (having given up watching during season 15), but this was proper Who and a good story to boot. At the time I was of the opinion that any TV tie-in not written by James Blish was likely to be dire, but this one got me into the novels (my second was The Time Travellers, which cemented my decision by being even better). I'm so glad I picked this one up rather than The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, which was next to it and would almost certainly have put me off!

    I've not read any NAs other than Lungbarrow; but I will keep reading the blog.

    Reply

  5. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 3, 2012 @ 7:19 am

    Virtual Murder is a neat idea, and could be folded in well with an entry I already have planned… a definite maybe.

    As for epics and Doctor Who, let's be fair, part of Moffat's accuracy is not down to an inherent relationship with scale but one of budget. In this regard, Journey's End is the more indicative one – two or three CGI shots of a massive Dalek fleet and you can get away with an episode that's actually just Davros and the Doctor in a basement yelling at each other a lot and have it be epic.

    To me the focus on the small is a separate issue. For my part, I think Remembrance is more effective than Happiness Patrol not because of the degree to which we can recognize the civilizations but because Remembrance does so much with the human scale of things – many more scenes are set among the "little people," so to speak.

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  6. daibhid-c
    August 3, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    This is one of the novels I skipped (having given up on the War Trilogy halfway through Warchild, I wasn't tempted by the combination of Cartmel, the Seventh Doctor and a war), and having read your post I regret it.

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  7. daibhid-c
    August 3, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    Wait, Warchild was the last one (which I also skipped) wasn't it? I meant Warlock.

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  8. Ike
    August 3, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    LOL. The description "Davros and the Doctor in a basement yelling at each other a lot" suggests something much better than what we actually got. And more subtle. MUCH more subtle. 😉

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  9. Yonatan
    August 3, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    I had stopped reading the books around the time that Father Time came out (2001 or so) and only read the PDA's occasionally. At some point when i unpack my books and actually see what condition my BBC books era collection is in, I will have to add this one to the list.
    I did always find that, especially after the wonderfulness of the NA era, that the 7th Doctor/Ace PDAs were never that good. Except for Matrix. Matrix was bonkers in all the right ways

    Reply

  10. Matthew Blanchette
    August 3, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    Caption for cover:"Mmmmmm, nuclear flowers…"

    Reply

  11. Adam Riggio
    August 4, 2012 @ 3:05 am

    What I find most interesting about your post is the seeds of redemption for John Nathan-Turner. We should be rightly critical of his actions and motives during the Davison and C.Baker eras: playing up the alienating cultish aspects of Doctor Who because Longleat falsely led him to believe that Ian Levine's priorities would be a path to popular success, prioritizing the superficial aspects of the show as a major creative focus. But the fact that he was a key part of the creative team when Bidmead and Cartmel were crafting brilliant visions of Doctor Who shows that when the context permitted, he could make excellent contributions.

    Nathan-Turner helped shape the sometimes sprawling visions and plans of Cartmel and Bidmead. It's good of you to point out, Phil, that Atom Bomb Blues shows that Cartmel's mind could run away from him were it not for Nathan-Turner's editorial hand keeping him on a clear path.

    John Nathan-Turner gets a lot of guff from the Doctor Who fan community, and he's come in for a lot of criticism on the Eruditorum as well, mostly deserved. But we should give him the respect he deserves. When things got tough, he could be a damn good producer; when he had solidly creative people to work with, like Bidmead and Cartmel, he could help them make some amazing television. It's too bad he didn't live to see Doctor Who so successfully revived, and to see his reputation rehabilitated — at least in part.

    Really, it just hoists more blame for the creative downturn of the mid-1980s on Eric Saward, Ian Levine, and Pip and Jane Baker. It'll be tough to give a redemptive reading on them.

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  12. Ununnilium
    August 4, 2012 @ 7:25 am

    Well, I think that part of the problem is that Saward and Nathan-Turner accentuated each other's worst aspects.

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  13. Ununnilium
    August 4, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    Actually, looking back, there's a perfect encapsulation of this back in the entry for Resurrection of the Daleks:

    "The problem is that this is by the script editor, and that points to more systemic problems. Especially when you have a producer whose blind spot is writing, when the writer can’t quite deliver the goods you have a big problem. Saward is almost, but not quite, up to the task of greatness. And Nathan-Turner’s production, to work, requires actual greatness."

    Reply

  14. Tommy
    August 4, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    For me JNT's gift and curse was how he was so furiously driven and burning with no many contradictory but adamant ideas about how the show should be done. Sometimes he could work miracles around problems, but more and more he was the kind who would make problems out of things that weren't problems originally. This of course

    One of his main skills he brought to the show was showmanship, and that's where we got the greats of Earthshock and The Five Doctors which made the show feel like an inviting and exhilarating one. But each time it would be followed up by a more disastrous example of showmanship. And worse still, Earthshock paved the way for his showmanship to become more and more lurid and sordid and nasty in its excesses.

    Gradually it got to a point where every potential chance the show had to capture the interest of the mass audience was blown in some way. The buzz of Earthshock, let down by Time-Flight. The buzz of the Daleks' return, let down by Resurrection of the Daleks. The publicity of the new Doctor, Colin Baker, practically killed by The Twin Dilemma and the nastiness of Season 22.

    That in itself seemed to be because JNT valued fan opinion, and in this instance he'd actually cast a knowledgeable fan in Colin, who'd suggested a return to Hartnel's Doctor. So JNT thought this was a good idea, except he got it horribly wrong.

    During Season 20, JNT was working on plans to produce a revival of the soap opera, Compact. Had he done so he probably would have left on The Five Doctors. So we'd have had that brief fan-pleasing period, and maybe even gained some new fans from it, but a new producer would probably take the show in a new direction. Probably all that would have survived of the worst Saward era excesses is Season 20's leftover story Resurrection of the Daleks- after all it had been all set to be filmed, and a chance to do another Dalek story might never come again, and if it was the last Dalek story it would have been a nice final word on them, and even its nasty nihilism and seeds of doubt over he Doctor's methods might have been easy to treat as a one-off.

    Warriors of the Deep probably would have been abandoned as logistically unfilmable, or if it was filmed we wouldn't have had Ian Levine onboard to demand continuity corrections which had led to JNT demanding Eric do rewrites which produced a nihilistic ending of a total bodycount making the Doctor look like a total liability (especially given Eric's tendency to characterise the Doctor with the kind of passive aggression and incoherent misanthropy that makes it look like he failed to save the humans just to spite them).

    Frontios, Awakening and Planet of Fire might still have happened, but in this version the Master probably would have stayed dead. Caves of Androzani was likely to still happen given that Robert Holmes had been offered a writing slot in Season 21 as consolation for his Six Doctors script falling through.

    Anthony Steven and Pip and Jane Baker only became involved because JNT wanted to return a favour to them, so with JNT gone, Twin Dilemma wouldn't have happened (plus the ban on having Peter Grimwade as director would have been lifted). Maybe Colin would still have been cast, but he'd have likely been given a far more endearing personality. And with a fresh pair of eyes overseeing the show, Season 22 and 23 would probably have seen more of the neglected sumbissions by Christopher Bailey, Barbara Clegg and Andrew Smith made into stories.

    The trouble is, with the BBC being in its financial shortfall, JNT's plans for the Compact revival weren't taken up. Just as Eric's plans to get Stargazers made fell through, and just like Troy Kennedy Martin got a bunch of scripts rejected before finally Edge of Darkness got commissioned. The very financial shortfall that saw Michael Grade being brought in to downsize the company.

    JNT was a stifling and inflexible presence on the show, but made worse by how stifling and inflexible the BBC were becoming.

    Reply

  15. Iain Coleman
    August 4, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    Tommy,

    There's much in what you say, but this:

    "Season 22 and 23 would probably have seen more of the neglected sumbissions by Christopher Bailey, Barbara Clegg and Andrew Smith made into stories"

    strikes me as implausible.

    It's not unusual for stories to simply not work after some period of development, even stories by good writers. I'm pretty critical of Saward, but I doubt he would have left perfectly workable stories on the shelf given how hard it was for any script editor to get a full season's slate.

    Reply

  16. Tommy
    August 4, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    From what Christopher Bailey has said, there was a period during writing his third Doctor Who script where he went several months without being contacted at all by the production team, and basically feeling his work was being neglected and losing faith in the writing process.

    Now it's possible that given JNT's odd fixation with limiting the kind of writers Eric could use, if a new, more easygoing producer left Eric freed up to let more of the show's older experienced writers get on with it whilst he attended to the scripts that were struggling, and didn't have to comply with Ian Levine's petty demands for continuity corrections, we would have gotten far better results.

    But really I just think the show just needed a new script editor around this time who was more hands on and less neglectful (and to be honest, Levine, or no Levine, the further Eric Saward was from the original script of Warriors of the Deep, the better). And it's not unusual for a departing producer to be accompanied by a departing script-editor. Like I said, if Eric's last contribution to the show had been Resurrection of the Daleks being ready for a new production team to produce, I would have been happy for that to be the final word on Eric.

    I mainly highlight Barbara Clegg and Andrew Smith because they were both big fans of the show and they were both among the most enthusiastic about sending in submissions. Infact from what I read, Andrew Smith's The First Sontarans was lined up for Season 22 and in a process of development with Eric Saward, but presumably it was abandoned because JNT decided to give Robert Holmes the Sontaran story instead.

    Barbara Clegg particularly seemed to demonstrate a better understanding of the show than most of the other writers, and I'm not entirely sure why all of her submissions apart from Enlightenment were rejected- especially given her friendship with Eric, and her plans to collaborate with him on his new sci-fi project, 'Stargazers' which never took off.

    I guess The Elite was probably rejected because of rights issues concerning the use of the Daleks, and Point of Entry seemed to fall to the wayside as a victim of the lost Season 23.

    It just seems a shame that they were among the few examples of 'new blood' to come from JNT's shake up that really seemed to 'get' the show, and yet were so poorly and scantly used. But perhaps once they were on board, a different script-editor and producer would have worked more closely and more productively with them.

    Reply

  17. Matthew Blanchette
    August 4, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

    The only way for JNT to leave with "The Five Doctors" is to have it as the Season 21 premiere, as was originally proposed and planned. That way, JNT gets his anniversary show, and the BBC get the full season following the special that they want from JNT. (Unfortunately, in real life, Sink or Swim got in the way.)

    After that… who'd be producer, though? Saward? I doubt he'd be up to it. It appears that Philip Hinchcliffe was available, but I doubt the BBC would be willing to put him back on the show.

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  18. Tommy
    August 4, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    I'm not sure about that. Apparently the agreement with the head of serials on The Five Doctors was that it would inherit some of the budget from Season 20, which suggests it was viewed as being the end of that season, rather than the beginning of Season 21.

    Ideally I'd have hoped on JNT's successor being one of two people. First being Peter Moffatt. After all he had previous TV production experience and was known for being good at crisis management. I think he'd be a good choice especially since he valued the input of older Who writers like Terrance Dicks. Then again as one of the few Season 18 directors who'd worked with Lalla Ward before, and was sympathetic enough to be able to get on Tom Baker's good side, I'd also have wanted for a world in which he became producer instead of JNT.

    My other choice would be Fiona Cumming, who was working to become a TV producer, which she eventually did in 1988 on The High Road. I mainly nominate her since she had worked so closely with some of the best Davison era writers, like Christopher Bailey and Barbara Clegg, and was especially faithful to their writer's vision.

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  19. Matthew Blanchette
    August 4, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    Crap; you're right, I got that wrong. Put a 1 where there should've been a 0; I'm like a malfunctioning computer! 😛

    Wouldn't either of those two untested producers need an "executive" to watch over them, like Barry Letts did with Season 18, do you think? Hinchcliffe or Williams might've been good for that less hands-on, advisorial sort of job…

    Reply

  20. Tommy
    August 4, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

    Not so much with Moffatt, since he had been a TV producer before back in the 60's. Cummming had experience as a writer too, which is something JNT didn't, which was the main part of the concern. I think the decision to bring Barry Letts in was an unusual one, and specifically down to the concerns of the then Head of Serials who was being put into a position where he couldn't micromanage the show anymore. It might have been decided this wasn't necessary again, by whoever was head of serials at the time.

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  21. Matthew Blanchette
    August 4, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    Well… considering the BBC at the time, if Season 20 had started with "The Five Doctors" and JNT had stepped down at the end of the season (strike or no), who out of your options do you think would be more likely to be picked as producer?

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  22. Tommy
    August 4, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    Of my choices, probably Moffatt, since he had the greater experience. But it's more likely the BBC would have tried to draft someone from outside the show.

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  23. Matthew Blanchette
    August 4, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    Probably a quantity completely unknown to us, then. :-/

    Reply

  24. Tommy
    August 5, 2012 @ 6:09 am

    On second thoughts there actually is a problem with JNT leaving on The Five Doctors, which is that after production on The Five Doctors ends, there's now only a two month gap before production of Season 21 begins. So the BBC might have decided to keep JNT on to produce the whole following season, rather than bring in an unprepared new team to work in such a small time window.

    Either that or JNT would have had to leave on The King's Demons and let someone else produce The Five Doctors, and The Five Doctors was his ambition, so he probably wouldn't have passed up the chance, unless the BBC drew up an immediate production schedule on his new show Impact that demanded he leave Doctor Who now.

    In that eventuality perhaps the best case scenario would be that JNT stays just for Season 21, but Eric Saward leaves (lets say he gets the go ahead to do Stargazers).

    That way Resurrection of the Daleks goes ahead as it is and manages to be the audience draw, Robert Holmes possibly still gets a slot to do Caves of Androzani as consolation for his Six Doctors script falling through.

    But Warriors of the Deep is rewritten by someone else and doesn't end with a total bodycount that makes the Doctor look like a total liability. And maybe even a different script editor manages to salvage something from Song of the Space Whale.

    And maybe this new script editor could find and nurture better scripts for Colin, from the writers available.

    Either that or it really is a case where the fall was inevitable and the show would have been better off ending either on Logopolis, or if Season 20 had finished on Resurection of the Daleks after all and not been lost to the strike, then end it on that story- either story would be apocalyptic and final enough to work as an ending, with hints of existentialism on what the Doctor's purpose in the universe is (Season 20 would also be a good farewell point because of the Doctor's farewell to the older Brigadier in Mawdryn Undead). And either would be a source of inspiration for the spin-off media in taking Doctor Who into a more adult or high concept direction.

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  25. Matthew Blanchette
    August 5, 2012 @ 8:19 am

    That's why the original plan for Season 20, with "The Five Doctors" starting it, probably would've worked out better; we get a great anniversary story and avoid the craptacular "Arc of Infinity"… but, in return, Johnny Byrne is probably assigned the eventual Kamelion story.

    Hmmmmm… it seems David Maloney was free, and was not working on the programme at the time; d'you think he might've been good?

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  26. Tommy
    August 5, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    It might have been the plan, yes. I suppose another benefit of having The Five Doctors take the place of Arc of Infinity is that you'd have a more plausible explanation for Tegan's return via time scoop. And you'd have more of a ratings grabber if you started the season on a multi-Doctor story. Hell if Robert Holmes' script had fallen through we might have gotten him penciled in for a slot later in that season.

    The problem wasn't so much down to BBC scheduling (although arguably an adjustment in the schedule might have saved Resurrection from the strike) so much as that JNT's conviction that The Five Doctors has to be shown on the anniversary day, seems rather neurotic in retrospect, given that it wasn't done with The Three Doctors, and it probably contributed to less money available to Season 20, and a lack of preparation time for Season 21.

    David Maloney would have been a fantastic choice for next producer, yes. He had economised well on the show's limited resources before, and he probably would have been the best choice for maintaining the kind of visceral quality that Warrior's Gate and Earthshock had given us. And the fact he'd worked well with Terry Nation, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes would make him especially ideal in bringing back the old guard and cutting deals for the rights to use the Daleks again.

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  27. Matthew Blanchette
    August 5, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    Hmmmm… they might've given Holmes the first slot in the Black Guardian trilogy, considering how well he'd done the first installment of the Key to Time season back in '78. In that instance, Grimwade gets the second slot, and Gallagher… well, I guess we get "Nightmare Country" for the next season, then, in that instance. 🙂

    Do you think things also might've turned out better if Saward had only stayed as a temp in 1981? If I recall correctly, he signed on permanently due to the extraordinary circumstances behind replacing "Enemy Within" with "Earthshock"; if Priest's story goes through rewrites and payments without a hitch, Saward's likely out the revolving door at season's end.

    At that point in time, Chris Boucher was available for the position; better situation, or not?

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  28. Tommy
    August 5, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

    It depends if JNT would have Boucher onboard, which is unlikely given his preference for 'new blood' and his resistance to older Who writers. A shame because, yes Boucher would have been the right man for the job (unfortunately JNT was uninterested in the 'right' men, in favour of 'yes' men).

    Saward being gone after one season would be to the benefit of the show. It was during the making of Season 19 that he got Barbara Clegg interested so we would have likely still gotten Enlightenment (personally I've have been very happy with her being made script editor on the strength of Enlightenment, especially if it meant she got tasked with the Dalek story).

    In Saward's absence, Song of the Space Whale might have gone ahead without a hitch, Warriors of the Deep might not have even been commissioned, and certainly wouldn't have ended in the dealbreaking way it did.

    Hell, maybe if the new script editor found better scripts for Season 20, Davison would have stayed another year and we wouldn't have gotten such an ill-judged debut for Colin.

    However without Saward, it begins to look doubtful if we would have gotten Terrance Dicks or Robert Holmes on the show again, so we might have had to say goodbye to The Five Doctors and Caves of Androzani. I'd also be somewhat sad to lose both Eric's Dalek stories…. but it just might have ended up being for the greater good.

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  29. Matthew Blanchette
    August 5, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    I think Dicks, being an old, reliable hand, would've been approached for the anniversary story, anyhow; he would've only just done "State of Decay" the season before, after all…

    Perhaps, if Priest's earlier submission, "Sealed Orders", had actually worked out, he might have been more forgiving about rewrites on "The Enemy Within"… and "Warrior's Gate" is pushed back to, perhaps, the finale of Season 19.

    …but these are all might-have-beens, anyhow. :-/

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  30. Alan
    August 5, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    It's fascinating that we're having this discussion of maybes and might-have-beens when the story that is the subject of this entry — Atom Bomb Blues — is itself about traveling to an alternate reality.

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  31. Matthew Blanchette
    August 5, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    Yes… the Could-Have-Been King with his Army of Meanwhiles and Never Weres. 😛

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  32. Ed Jolley
    November 12, 2012 @ 3:56 am

    Apologies if this has gone unmemtioned because everyone else finds it so obvious as not to deserve commenting on, but it struck me that Morita's motivation might have been partially inspired by (or even a dig at) the subset of fandom that gets fanatical about the search for missing Hartnell and Troughton episodes.

    Reply

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