Survival of the Fittest

Out now in shops, my Doctor Who: Survival of the Fittest, for which I was asked to give Sylvester McCoy an unrepentant Nazi for a travelling companion. Herewith my 150 words from the liner notes:

My grandmother was convinced she’d been had. After gassing the nest and plugging up the holes, the exterminator returned a few days later to check on it. When he unplugged the entrance, a bunch of wasps flew out and away. But he assured us that the nest was dead, and that the fugitives were merely the last hatchlings, from post-apocalyptic eggs.

The idea of insect civilisation brings questions of its own. How would it operate? How would they feel about being born, already forced into incontrovertible specialisms? As her first act after hatching, a newborn bee queen will murder her twin sister in the neighbouring cocoon. Every insect must know its place. When Big Finish asked me to think on the implications of taking Klein’s ideology to logical conclusions, I drew on my childhood memories, and the concept of a group of creatures, born alone in the dark in the ruins of their world, then freed to fly away to an unknown fate. Where did they think they were going? Were they only following orders?

But there’s more; there always is. As with most scripts, there was a long process of pitching and repitching before everybody was happy with the ideas on the table. “Survival of the Fittest” was in my mind because at the time I was writing a book about Charles Darwin, and I was fascinated at the time with the pull exerted on early Darwinists by the eugenics movement, which, of course, fed into Nazism. I initially wanted to write something about the First Emperor of China, who really took fascism to its logical conclusion. He was raised by what was known in those days as Legalists, people who would do anything to get into power and anything to stay there. The legal system of his Qin dynasty included punitive maiming and institutionalised bribery, while many lower classes were reduced to super-specialised slaves, door-openers and power sources. Hence my original pitch, which was called The Hidden Offices, taking its name from the title of the First Emperor’s personnel division for disabled slaves.

But Big Finish wanted something interstellar and far-ranging, so instead I pitched the concept of a world high above the galactic plane, where the Milky Way itself spun “like a swastika in the sky.” My working title, in fact, was Swastika Night. There was some stuff in there about warp cores and gravity wells, too, and a malfunctioning drive that had marooned human colonists millions of light years away from a solar system large enough to truly support them, forced instead to struggle for lebensraum with indigenous insectoids.

I wanted insects because of the parallels between hive societies and a fascist regimes. But once I had insects, I was drawn inevitably to a recurring issue in my Doctor Who scripts: how does the TARDIS translation circuit actually work? If everything somebody says is translated fully, why do we hear accents? Are accents part of semantics, in which case should we hear stress in unstressed languages? What size of area does TARDIS translation affect? What happens when it’s gone? And in this case, what happens when communication is conducted by pheromones and scents? When creatures have no vocal chords, how would the TARDIS render their communication?

When I realised that there would be little scope for humour, sarcasm or untruths in a pheromone-based communication system, I had my story. And then it was down to producer David Richardson and director John Ainsworth to make all the actors play creatures that communicated by smell. Everybody likes a challenge.

Dragon Half

I can’t even remember the name of the fanzine. I do remember that back in 1995 when Schoolgirl Milky Crisis wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye, they interviewed me about translating Japanese animation, and in passing, someone said that the closing theme of Dragon Half was “untranslatable”. I said that nothing was truly untranslatable, although a faithful rendition of the song “Watashi no Tamagoyaki” would inevitably sound as odd in English as it did in the original Japanese.

“All right,” they said. “Prove it.” So I got a pen and a Wordtank, and got stuck into the song: a mad sequence presenting a girl crazily trying to cook a meal for a boy she is trying to impress. After a brief monologue about the state of her cooking and her feelings for her prospective man, we get to hear her side of the disastrous dinner conversation, before she’s agonising once more in the kitchen, then back at the table, then finally winning his approval. But then, in the final lines, she watches in terror as he reaches for one of the dodgy eggs.

Oh yes, and you have to leave in asides in Chinese and Korean, along with some la-la-la nonsense words, and make it rhyme and scan with the original, which is sung to the tune of a Beethoven medley played at triple speed, belted out by the sublime Kotono Mitsuishi at a thousand miles an hour.

I was pretty pleased with the results. As was the nameless fanzine, which went on to print my translation without bothering to include the interview that was supposed to go alongside it. Fifteen years on, I could probably do a little better… but not much. I’d probably leave out the deliberate British slang (it was a UK publication) and I’d think twice about “bloody”, but otherwise it’s as good a crack as anyone’s had at performing the impossible.

Altogether now…

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, bloody egg!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Look at the grill, it’s turned to smeg!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, spuds are cursed!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Don’t try to boil them or it’s worse!

Oh, he’s a wonder, he’s a dream, mustn’t blunder

I’m a wreck, I’m a nutter, but I want him bad

Heart can’t stop rushing as I’m cooking while I’m gushing

Gotta be the best meal that he’s ever had!

Outside the sun is shining, we could be somewhere dining

Let’s hope he gets the hint and asks me out

Just say you will and we can trash all this swill and have a

Good decent meal without a doubt, RAN RARARAN


North East South West Full Empty Up Down RAN RARARAN


One Two Three Four, Yi Er San Si

“Don’t eat the tomato!

It’s mine and I should know!

Try octopus, yes do!

I made it just for you!”

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter didn’t know he’d want some more!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

No more boiled eggs so now they’re raw!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, lager too!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

It’s far too cold but that’ll do!

Wow! Think it’s working! So what now? No more shirking! So…

“Ahem! Did I tell you you’ve got pretty eyes?”

Oh! This is lovely, is it time to get snuggly?

Do I wait or do I take him by surprise?

Don’t think I’m surly, I’m a silly little girlie

But I want you to tell me what you think. Confess!

Ah that’s more like it, he’s so cool, what a poet

I was starting to think I had to guess RARARAN


Kamsa Hamnida, I am sorry


Gambei, Takeaway, School’s Over Hooray!

Toughest meal I ever had, 95% ain’t bad

Jungle law my hand was forced, why not try the special course? Ow!

The egg! It’s all for naught!

I’m done and it’s my fault!

Damn! Bloody eggs! Bloody eggs!

Unicorns & Cannonballs

I’ll be in Dublin on the 20th-21st March for the second Irish Film Institute Anime Weekend, which will include screenings of Evangelion 1.11, Evangelion 2.0, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Gundam: Unicorn, and Blood: The Last Vampire. I’ll be introducing some of the films and doing a panel or two, one of which is sure to involve Hugh David (ex of ADV Films), Andrew Partridge (Beez Entertainment) and I smacking chairs over each other’s heads and arguing about the future of anime. I’m also conducting a seminar about the way Japanese animation is put together, using the ideas employed by the late Jinzo Toriumi in educating an entire generation of anime screenwriters. If you are an Irish anime fan (or a student who wants to book one of the limited places available on the seminar), you might want to keep that weekend free. And yes, I am always happy to sign copies of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis — someone in Glasgow last week asked me if I’d mind! Good God, I can’t sign enough of them.

Details of the weekend and/or seminars aren’t up at the IFI website yet, but I know they’re printing their March brochure, so they should be soon. Watch that space.

Licence to Thrill

I love my job. But it is my job. I write for money. Copyright and its enforcement makes it possible for me to earn a living as an author and, hopefully, not die penniless like Sir Walter Scott.

Because I blogged earlier about the PLR, it’s only fair that I should also mention the sterling work done by the ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, which collects royalties from institutional photocopying of magazine articles, broadcasts of scripts, and sundry other bits and bobs, including monies from any foreign library schemes that have signed a deal with the UK. So if you take one of my books out of a library in the Netherlands, or Germany, or God knows where else, the ALCS collects the money accruing and passes it on to me.

I actually earn twice as much from the ALCS as I do from British library loans, largely thanks to the meticulous care of teachers and lecturers all over the world. On my ALCS statement this February, for example, I see that someone in Australia has been teaching lessons with the aid of photocopies from my children’s book Chinese Life. Bits of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis and articles from Newtype USA and NEO are turning up in lectures all around the world, and when they are photocopied, I often get a modest stipend.

Meanwhile, for the first time, authors in Britain are receiving royalties through the ALCS from the Irish Public Lending Right scheme. So if you took one of  my books out of an Irish library last year, you were inadvertently contributing towards the GuinnessI shall be drinking tonight in your honour. Which will keep me alive for another day of ranting and spite, for your entertainment in another book.

However, if you stole one of my books this year,  no love. PLR, the ALCS and bodies like them are fighting constantly to defend authors’ interests in an indifferent world. They’re doing a great job, and their existence is something I greatly appreciate, particularly when bookshops themselves are dwindling. As a sometime historian, I am all too aware that authors today have a better deal than authors at any time previously in history, and that modern media, including the oft-derided Internet, is one of the prime factors that make this so. However, it also means that we must contend with the self-entitlement issues of thieves who can apparently afford a laptop computer, but not the book they read on it.

Next Season's Japanese TV

The Japanese TV world moves fast; there are approximately 30 new series each season, of which perhaps a dozen will go out in prime time, and only a handful will comprise remakes or sequels to earlier shows. In order to help you guess what the storylines might be for as-yet unmade series like Hairdresser Detective, My Boyfriend is an Alien, Get Away From My Husband You Bitch, and who knows, perhaps Undertaker Cop, we offer this handy plot generator. Delete as applicable, or add your own variables:

Janet is a (reporter / photographer / traffic cop / nurse / princess / florist / teacher / stewardess / designer) who finds herself falling for John, who is a (detective / bail jumper / salaryman / architect / doctor / samurai / pilot / musician / student/ undercover alien / terrorist). After first meeting during a (wedding / crime investigation / blind date / robbery / swordfight), they initially fail to get on with each other, but are miraculously thrown back together by their (interfering parents / shared interest in an unlikely hobby / unexpected relocation to shared lodgings).

However, their burgeoning relationship is threatened by (old flames / intrigues at their workplace / the fact they’ve switched bodies / their removal to a different time period), and by the fact that Janet is (already married / a celebrity / impersonating someone else / on the run from the police / diagnosed with only three months to live / on an undercover mission / pick one from the next list) and that John is (leaving the country / in love with someone else / supposed to defend the world from attacking aliens / pick one from the previous list).

Nor is anyone expecting the sudden mid-season appearance of (an old flame / a long-lost relative / an ultimatum that could ruin their careers). They must also deal with a dark secret, because one of them is (also married / still getting over the death of a loved one / a parent / suppressing the memories of a terrible trauma / actually a ghost / hell-bent on revenge against the other’s father). Luckily, they grow closer thanks to an incident involving (zany friends / a talking dog / someone’s parent / a wacky DJ) and the fact that they are forced to cooperate on (rearing a child or children / chasing a story / an arrest / saving the planet).

Though the story appears to resolve itself, a surprise twist involving (another murder / a revelation about the boss / a sudden hospitalisation) leads to a last-minute reunion at (Narita airport / a wedding / a sports meet / the hospital). And everybody lives happily ever after, including two supporting cast members who have unexpectedly fallen in love, unless there is a second season, in which case at least one of the leads will (turn up with an unexpected spouse / change jobs / lose their memory).

(Originally printed in the Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953, by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, 2003).

Eva 2.0

A great night at the UK premiere of Evangelion 2.0 at the Glasgow Film Theatre yesterday. Emily Fussell from the BBFC was on hand to talk about rude words, dodgy imagery and imitable violence. The audience were on great form with a plethora of questions about censorship, and I found myself signing a bunch of copies of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, the Dorama Encyclopedia and even a few of my Highlanders.  As for Eva 2.0 itself, it met with a roaringly enthusiastic reception, as a full house laughed, yelled and WTF’d their way through an all-new apocalypse. I thought it was everything that a premiere ought to have been, and the crowd left with plenty to talk about. An excellent start to Scotland Loves Animation – a new strand of programming that we’ll be seeing a lot more of in months to come.


Hiroyuki Yamaga was 22 years old when he became an anime director. The ink was still drying on his college degree when he was suddenly catapulted into the limelight, and sent off to make Royal Space Force, a vaguely defined science fiction epic about the race for the stars. There was also, somewhere in the pre-production meetings, a second vague assurance to the sponsors that there might be some merchandise tie-ins.

Yamaga doesn’t admit to feeling out of his depth. He went in supremely confident; he came out with an anime masterpiece. He knew what he was doing right from the start, and claims that, even though he graduated in film, the best possible training for directorship is to pick a movie and watch it ten times. Once is entertainment, twice is repetition… by the fourth or fifth time you’re climbing the walls. But then you start to see lighting you would have fixed, lines you would have rewritten, shots you would have reblocked. By the tenth pass, you hate the movie, but you are ready to make a better one.

Which is why, like all filmmakers, twenty years later he isn’t going to sit in the theatre while his work plays to an audience for the thousandth time. Instead, he’s with me, whiling away 90 minutes until the movie ends, sitting outside a bar in a square in Switzerland. He fiddles with his pipe, a sleek metallic artefact from Porsche Design, and sips his Italian wine.

I refuse to believe that his movie went that smoothly. I remember the first day I was given control of a meagre £17,000 magazine budget. I spent the first day vomiting. But he was 22 and running a six-figure production.

“Oh,” he admits, “there were the grown-ups, I suppose. The people who had to sign off on everything. The producers who’d put up the money. They left me to it largely, which is why I am still pleased with the film, but every now and then they insisted on some little tweak.”

It’s only when he talks of the changes made during production that we catch a glimpse of how outnumbered and outgunned he could have been. With Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind topping the box office, one of the “grown-ups” made the handy suggestion that The Something of Something would be a better title and would draw more audiences into the theatres. Since one of the movie’s sponsors was All Nippon Airlines, someone else helpfully suggested that something aerial-sounding should be in. And so Royal Space Force became The Wings of Honneamise.

I ask Yamaga how it felt on the first day, standing in front of a crowd of expectant animators, all waiting for  him to tell them what to do.

He shrugs and tinkers with his pipe.

“They’re animators. They’re professionals. It’s their job to do what I tell them. If I don’t like something, I am free to ask for changes. That’s my job. It’s much easier telling professional animators what to do, because they’re being paid to follow my orders. Like waiters,” he adds with a cheeky smile, as more wine is put in front of him.

“The most difficult thing is telling amateurs what to do. After you’ve run a fanzine… After you’ve run a convention, when the only staff members are volunteers and everyone is there out of love, and your only means of control is charisma and pleading… After you’ve done that, running a bunch of movie professionals is a piece of cake.”

(This article first appeared in NEO #67, 2009)