Let’s Play Doctor Who Legacy: Robots of Sherwood (Season 8)

Second of my Family Gamer TV videos. You can now find a playlist of these in the links bar to the right.


September 9, 2014. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized. Comments off.

Winter Shorts: Gaudi Night, The Siege of Fellguard and The Hour of Hell

Oh look, I haven’t updated the blog in ages. Two updates in 2013! That’s competent. Never mind.

In my defence, I’ve been busy. Last year I wrote the longest book I’ve ever written, 150,000 words, and that’s just winding its way through the editorial process, so I have no idea when it’ll be out.

I also wrote a novella, Dead Stop, for Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead zombie line, which will be coming out as an ebook soon? I think? You can keep an eye on that here.

There are a couple of things of mine you can go and read right now, both ebooks that came out in December and which I didn’t promote as much as I should have in the pre-Christmas carnage.

First up I contributed a new Doctor Who story to the charity anthology The Twelve Doctors of Christmas, a spin-off from the recently revived fanzine Cygnus Alpha. The collection was edited by John Davies with art by Simon Brett and others, and is a great collection of talent. My story is called Gaudi Night, a pun I’ve had back-pocketed for years, features the Fifth Doctor as played by Peter Davison, and sees the Doctor facing off against one of his oldest and greatest nemesises. You can pick up either the whole collection or just my story as an ebook via the donation page here.

Siege-of-Fell-GuardminiSecondly, December also saw tw0 linked Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Guard stories by me appear as ebooks. The Siege of Fellguard and The Hour of Hell overlap, but not only can you read either of them individually without missing anything , but if you do read both together you’ll see certain events from different perspectives, with hopefully minimal repetition. As well as ensuring the stories could be read either apart or together, there was also the separate challenge of adapting both from background text provided by Games Workshop, so the Fellguard stories were an interesting project to work on. I’ve always wanted to try doing an adaptation, and I think this one went pretty well. They’re not microshorts –  together they’re over 20,000 words, the length of a short novella – so should provide a pleasingly hefty read.

Aside from the technical side of things, I hope people enjoy the Fellguard stories, which feature colourful characters having terrible things happen to them in the grim, dark 41st century. There’s a lot of action, some repulsive Chaos baddies and quite a few horrible deaths. Something to lift the spirits in the post holiday lull, I hope.

You can buy The Siege of Fellguard here and The Hour of Hell here.

OK, back to work on the next thing. Happy New Year!



January 7, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , . Uncategorized. Comments off.

les adventures de Lancelot

Here’s a curio for fans of 1960s ‘Doctor Who’ (i.e. any ‘Who’ fan over twenty-five with a functioning taste gland).

While in Paris for our honeymoon a couple of years ago, we browsed a vast second hand book shop in a covered market. It was the kind of place that, for whatever reason, you don’t see in the UK. Amongst all the filthy Italian horror comics and other oddities I spotted a familiar face:

… William Russell, Ian Chesterton himself. Now, most fans of any vintage will know that Russell was the star of ‘The Adventures of Sir Lancelot’ before starring in ‘Who’. Indeed, as with Matt Smith et al on the back of current ‘Who’ books, Russell is credited by name at the front of this French tie-in book:

As ‘Who’ has never been big in France, it’s interesting to see that one of it’s initial stars was well-known enough to have his face plastered over a kids tie-in storybook in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

There was a DVD release of ‘Lancelot’ a few years back, some of you may even have seen it. I’m seriously doubting that it had the kind of action this book’s illustrations suggest:

Pretty dynamic, huh? My suspicion is that most of the show was more like a bunch of actors standing around in a small TV studio.

Finally, it’s good to know that even when playing Lancelot, Russell still had Ian’s frankly awesome haircut:

I don’t know much French, but I’m glad we found this book, physical confirmation that William Russell was a global star five decades before the current ‘Who’ team started doing premiere events in New York, as well as a charmingly straightforward TV tie-in from long ago.


June 8, 2011. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. Comments off.

‘Check against delivery’

[The nice people at Microcon kindly asked me to speak at their event this year. This is my script for the talk I gave, tweaked to fit with where I remember cutting or adding bits off the cuff on the day.]

Hello, thank you all for coming and thanks to everyone involved in organising Microcon for inviting me. Apologies if my delivery is a little stilted, I haven’t done any public speaking in a while and haven’t had chance for a runthrough, so I’m reading from a script.

Anyway, please feel free to interrupt at any time with questions, although there’ll be time for discussion at the end so if you’d like to engage in a heated debate on something it might be better to wait ‘til then lest I completely lose my thread, such as it is.


My name’s Mark Clapham and I’m a writer. While I’ve written plenty of reviews and non-fiction stuff, my most substantial work has been writing books for ongoing series where I am one of many writers involved. Most notably I’ve written Doctor Who books for BBC Books and I’m currently working on Warhammer 40,000 novels for Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop.

These books are part of bigger fictional worlds, shared universes which are gradually created and changed by the contributions of many writers, artists and other creative people.

They’re not necessarily the most literary and respectable part of SF and fantasy, but they’re a significant one, at least partially because they often appeal to younger age groups – there are very few fans of serious SF or fantasy who did not start out reading Star Wars comics or Doctor Who books or some similar mass market version of SF.

Beyond the fact that these series tend to be a genre gateway, as well as trading on the strength of an established brand name, I do think their nature as shared fictional universes gives them a different flavour. Even the most prolific writer has limits on their output, even the most diverse talent can only do so many things.

Whereas a work from many hands, a fictional world built by many creators, can have a complexity and possibility for contradiction that the more focussed SF produced by an author with a mission can’t attain. For many readers, this can be an appeal in itself – that a big shared universe has more backwaters to explore, more obscurities to uncover and, should it remain popular, can continue to grow beyond even the death of its original creators.

Today I’ll be talking about Who, about Warhammer 40K, and diverting into chatting about Judge Dredd and a few other things as it suits me. The title of this talk is –

‘Optimism and Cynicism in pop-SF shared universes’

–      because I had to call it something.

I should really have put the word ‘British’ in there as well, but that would have been a ridiculously garbled title.

Anyway, optimism and cynicism.

I picked those two themes because they’re useful in gauging the tone of a shared universe, and tone, although an opaque concept at the best of times, is often the key to the appeal of a shared universe setting. Characters and creators may vary, plots may span different genre tropes, but there’s a tonal quality that distinguishes, say, a Doctor Who story from other stories that may feature time travel or aliens.

Tone is different to authorial voice. What, to me, distinguishes a shared universe from your average licensed property or spin-off is the ability for creators to contribute to that universe, for their own voices to emerge but for individual stories to lock together. No-one writes like Stan Lee any more, but we have a feel for what kind of universe the Marvel comic books he created are set in.

By contrast, it’s hard to imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer sprawling out into a true shared universe, because Joss Whedon’s writing style is imprinted on every facet of that series, and too much variation from that house style feels wrong.

But I digress. I mentioned Marvel, and there are few multi-author narratives like the major superhero comics that have been running continuously in the US since the 1930s, and Doctor Who is one of them. Although there’s a sixteen year gap in the middle of its fifty year broadcast history, that gap in TV production was filled with books, radio plays, and comic strips.

I wrote one and a half novels along with a short story during that period, and managed to get out of the Doctor Who business just before it became profitable again when the TV series restarted in 2005.

But that’s enough about my credentials. Suffice to say that there’s not been a year since the series’ creation in 1963 when new Doctor Who stories haven’t been created and consumed, and for at least two decades a month hasn’t passed without new Who.

Obviously people like reading about the Doctor Who universe, and writers like me and Mr Walters* like to add to it. So what makes this rolling, ever expanding pop-SF shared universe its appeal?

I know that the chances of anyone here not knowing the premise of Doctor Who are slim to non-existent, but it’s worth reiterating the basics just to provide a context for what I’m about to say.

So – the series is about an alien time traveler called the Doctor who travels in a time machine called the TARDIS with a number of friends, usually humans. The Doctor is a Time Lord, and this alien background allows him to regenerate into different actors, allowing for infinite recasts and for radical changes in his personality over time. The Doctor has had eleven different faces and personalities.

Generally Doctor Who stories are adventures, where the Doctor and friends will turn up on a planet or in a period of Earth’s history to find something nefarious going on, often of an alien or monstrous nature. There’ll be action, some scares, and eventually the Doctor will win out.

There are no rock solid rules to the loose science-fantasy universe the Doctor inhabits, beyond it never drifting into an outright fantasy world of magic and ghosts. Pretty much anything can happen, providing it can be covered by some generic technobabble. Science can do anything, every SF cliché is available for use, and various races including the Time Lords themselves are practically god-like in their capabilities.

Doctor Who is a curious example of a shared universe because there’s no ‘essential’ quality that you can point to which cannot be contradicted:

  • You’d think the Doctor and TARDIS were the bedrocks of the show, but there are episodes where the Doctor doesn’t appear and whole serials where his time machine, the TARDIS, isn’t used at all.
  • The Doctor is generally considered to be a character who fights monsters and villains, but there are stories with no clear antagonist, or few SF elements beyond the mechanism of time travel.
  • The Doctor is also largely seen as a character who abhors violence, but there are plenty of counterexamples where he engages in physical combat or even picks up a gun.
  • Sometimes the show majors in the time travel aspect, with a strong historical bent, at other periods the series has just bounced between alien planets and versions of a generic space future, barely dipping into history at all.

Now, if Doctor Who really was a do-anything fictional universe with no consistency whatsoever, an empty space that can just suck in any type of story and where everything is up for grabs, it wouldn’t inspire the level of devotion it does, because there would be no recurring elements to inspire such loyalty.

So there must be recurring themes that set the Doctor Who universe apart, even if there are none that are absolutely universal and applicable to every story.

Which brings me, finally, back to my central theme. There is a strong aspect of pessimism to the Doctor Who universe. It is full of threat. We know this because of the basic terminology with which we discuss the series: while other SF universes have alien races, the Doctor Who universe has monsters. Virtually every story has a strong antagonist and a deadly threat, whether that be a monster or a villainous plot. For most of its history it’s been an action adventure show, with constant peril.

Really, while the Doctor and his human companions profess to love the freedom of exploring all of time and space, and there’s certainly an appealing, imaginative quality and diversity to the idea of having a vast universe and the entirety of history to explore, it’s a wonder anyone leaves the house in the Doctor Who universe, because you can’t go anywhere without something terrible trying to kill you in a horrible, albeit gore-free and family friendly, way.

But if the format of Doctor Who requires that the lead characters be threatened with deadly danger the moment they step out of the TARDIS into a new time period or alien world at the start of the story, it equally requires that such threats be neutralised before our heroes depart at story’s end.

This is the fundamental optimism built into the Who universe: that there may be many problems, but they are all soluble with good intentions and intelligence. Unspeakable horrors may run rampant, killing off minor characters, but by story’s end they are banished or destroyed and a pleasant normalcy is restored.

That normalcy, no doubt deeply undramatic as various backwater human colonists get back to their futuristic farming or whatever, is allowed to come into existence because of the way the series shifts focus at the end of every story. Gotham City can never be cured of crime because that would give Batman nothing to do, but planets in Doctor Who can be entirely cleansed of evil influence because there’ll be a whole new world of trouble to explore next time.

In this sense there’s something of the classic western narrative to Doctor Who, just transferred to a far wider, more imaginative dramatic canvas. Just as the cowboy rides into a troubled town, shoots the outlaws then moves on, so the Doctor visits small community after small community, ridding them of aliens and bad guys before flying off to deal with the next problem.

This is a very comforting and reassuring form of storytelling. Compared to a real world full of difficult, complex problems the Doctor Who universe is a very straightforward place where bad things are sorted out quickly by good people being good.

While it has the trappings of science fiction, favouring technology and biology over magic and demons, the mechanics of how things happen are largely irrelevant: the conflicts are moral, rather than technical. The technology and technobabble are dramatic props: while much is made of the Doctor’s intelligence as a scientist, it is his strength of character that allows him to defeat his enemies, not his academic qualifications.

While the series is capable of doing political allegories, and there are plenty of satirical parallels littered throughout Who stories in all media, one of the strengths of Doctor Who is that it’s not tied to a specific agenda, or at least not one that can be clearly defined. Its core values are those of a fairy tale, where tyrants and ogres are bad and those who fight the bad things are good. It’s a supremely uncontroversial agenda.

I mentioned earlier that there’s nothing in Who that you can hold up as an absolute of the series that can’t be roundly contradicted by evidence from elsewhere in the series, and this contradictory nature adds to its appeal, providing a reflection.

The series has a general open-mindedness that makes the occasional mean spirited story seem jarring – for the benefit of long term fans I’ll name and shame the anti-peace movement ‘The Dominators’ and the proto-tea party anti-tax rantings of ‘the Sun Makers’ as examples. This is often taken as being a left wing agenda, and indeed there have been specifically politically motivated stories and conscious liberal strains within the series, such as the deliberate inclusion of gay characters in recent TV series, a steady normalising that will probably do more to change the attitude of the next generation than any number of serious documentaries.

However there’s also an element of fusty conservatism at the series’ heart. The Doctor is old, knowledgeable and virtually always right. He comes from a position of authority and seniority, and there’s something almost colonial about his position as the traveling English gentleman, traveling the universe to sort out all the problems space-foreigners can’t resolve for themselves. It’s a paternalistic worldview, one where only the Big White Man can solve the universe’s big problems.

These contradictions are both inclusive, as they allow viewers and readers of all stripes to see something they can identify within the complex character of the series, and add some crunch to a universe that could otherwise be overly simplistic. While the ‘good vs evil’ conflicts are straightforward enough, Doctor Who has room for complexity, room that allows writer after writer to contribute their own feelings and thoughts to the greater tapestry of the series.

The Doctor Who universe is a place we want to have access to. You just wouldn’t want to live there. But in British popular SF, it’s one of the nicer shared universes.

Of late I’ve been writing for Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe, and that’s a really nasty place to be, although a fun one to write and read about.

In the far future of the year 40,000, humanity is in a mess. Besieged by merciless alien races and demonic forces that threaten to drag the universe into an actual hell, the human race is ruled by the Imperium, a militaristic dystopia that mismanages a total war of us against everything else in existence, a war that humanity is losing. The doomsday clock is perpetually half a minute from midnight.

The desperation of the situation justifies a society that’s entirely militarised, fascistic in the broadest and most insane way, where human life is entirely disposable and free will is a long forgotten luxury. If you’re lucky, you just die. If you’re less lucky, you are driven mad by the forces of Chaos or mutate into something terrible.

While the Doctor Who universe is a dangerous place where good always wins out, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a lethal place where the good guys are only marginally better than the monsters, and any victory is only a temporary blip in the advance of encroaching, absolute horror.

Now, SF is full of dystopias, and understandably these bleak futures are quite depressing, apocalyptic scenarios where humanity is dying due to war, environmental catastrophe or disease.

The year 40,000 is simultaneously worse than all of those, but a lot more fun. It has a very British quality of black comedy and gleeful horror, one which can be seen in the many bleak futures of Judge Dredd and the other characters in 2000AD, but here pushed as far as it can go.

If the bleakness of the scenario is pushed to an extreme, so is the scale: not only is the universe big, but virtually everything in it is oversized. Populations are measured in billions not millions, buildings are the size of continents, the frontlines of war sweep across entire star systems. Timescales are measured in millennia rather than years. It’s a big canvas, in every sense.

Warhammer 40K (as it’s generally known) has different constraints and freedoms to other shared universes, mainly because of its background: it’s based on a game, a tabletop wargame to be precise. The dystopian nature of the universe is built around creating a narrative context for wargames, and for making those games fun by raising the stakes as high as possible. It makes for an inherently dramatic backdrop for SF adventure stories, one where any extremity can be justified.

Games have rules, and so many aspects of the 40k universe are mechanically locked down, as official fiction needs to respect the integrity of the game system it’s based around.**

The abilities and equipment of the various warring factions in the universe are quite tightly proscribed. Fictional weaponry has to work consistently. While it’s not hard science fiction by any means, it is a kind of science fiction where consistency is paramount.

While these constraints do exist, the 40k universe also has freedoms. For a start, while there are major characters operating in the universe, Generals and Warlords, heroes and villains, it’s a very big universe and most stories will take place on previously unseen worlds with casts of entirely new characters.

Writers are not constrained by writing for a fixed set of characters whose fates cannot be tampered with, and this creates a greater sense of variety and danger to the universe for readers: virtually no-one is safe. Stories can, and due to the nature of the universe often do, end horribly.

While there is a great freedom in the stories that can be told, they do accumulate and build off each other. There’s a geography to the universe, timelines that can be built upon and added to. If a shared universe’s appeal can be measured in its intricate consistency, then the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a good example of that.

Just as Doctor Who has prospered in comics and books while the TV series has been off the air, so the Warhammer 40,000 fiction has an appeal that reaches beyond the fanbase of the game itself. The popularity of the game alone cannot entirely explain the interest in that background as a source of stories – after all, if participation in a game translated into book sales, football novels would be a bestselling genre.

No, there is an appeal to an epic, violent dystopia like Warhammer 40,000 that transcends its basis as a background for gaming and draws in a wider readership, and I think that appeal is rooted in its gleeful bleakness.

Although sensational newspaper headlines may try and convince us otherwise, the western world in the early 21st century is a relatively safe place. Societies are generally orderly, military conflicts are distant and contained, and wars conducted in our name are done so by a professional military. Since the end of the second world war the chances of the average British citizen being called up to fight in armed conflict have steadily decreased.

Yes, crime and tragedy can strike, but these events are relatively rare. Most of us will, hopefully, live fairly contented, untroubled and undramatic lives, with everyday problems.

The bleakness of Warhammer 40K’s pessimistic vision presents a distraction from our everyday concerns, and a cathartic look into a world where there are no minor problems, only massive life threatening ones. Death may be a constant presence, but the beleaguered subjects of the Imperium of Man at least die as part of sweepingly important events. We can be both glad to not live in such a dangerous, dramatic universe, but also slightly envious of the scale and drama of it all.

Doctor Who offers a similarly threatening universe, albeit with more light and shade to appeal to a wider audience, and especially a younger one. While relentless horror may be fun for adolescent boys of all ages, and I include my 35 year old self in that, most people prefer a little hope in there hopelessness, and Doctor Who sugars its sense of danger with a reassuring message that the horrors may come close, but they can be driven back.

There are many other examples of SF shared universes of course, and I’ve just been talking about those I know best. What they do show, I think, is that for one of these shared fictions to grow it needs to provide a tone that suggests new stories and inspires and the open space for creativity, but while having an identifiable character that binds the stories into a whole, and creates something distinctive that draws people in. A universe can be more optimistic, more pessimistic, but that balance of light and shade needs to be clear and fixed.

It’s by knowing what kind of place a shared universe is that allows us to decide whether to keep revisiting it.

* Fellow Microcon guest and fellow BBC Books Doctor Who author Nick Walters.

** I seem to be suggesting here that the novels are entirely led by the game, which was what I believed at the time. Since giving the talk I read this excellent article by Aaron Dembski-Bowden that makes clear that, to use Ben Goldacre’s favourite phrase, it isn’t quite as simple as that.

March 16, 2011. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized. 1 comment.

Doctor Who Files: The Macra

One of the fun things about having a blog is that it’s a chance to share the work done on some writing projects that, for whatever reason, fail to come to fruition. This is one of them.

Over the last few years, BBC Books published a series of short, hardback ‘Doctor Who Files’, basically fact files books with a few words, a lot of pictures and a short story in the back, each covering some aspect of the series: the Doctor, the TARDIS, one of the monsters.

Anyway, they stopped doing the books a year or so back, so it’s probably safe now for me to show you my proposed text for Doctor Who Files: The Macra. For some reason the BBC rejected this as suitable for publication. Can’t think why.

June 23, 2010. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized. 1 comment.

Doctor Who: Monster Invasion

Very quick post, mostly photos, and aimed at a couple of people who were interested.

Doctor Who: Monster Invasion is a new partwork tying into the Matt Smith season, based around a collectible card game.

Now, partworks don’t usually launch nationwide off the bat – the publishers test demand with a regional pilot, running the first few issues in one bit of the UK. In the case of DWMI, they’re doing it in the South West of England.

So, for those of you elsewhere, here’s a few pics of the launch issue:

This is a BBC Magazines production, as you can tell from the logo in the top left corner.

(Previous Doctor Who trading card games came from Panini. Feel free to debate the politics of the BBC’s relationship with third party licensees to your hearts content, I ain’t saying nothin’.)

The editor is Annabel Gibson, a familiar name to readers of the BBC’s other tie-in magazine, Doctor Who Adventures.

The general writing and presentation style of DWMI is very similar to DWA: a thin magazine with lots of photos from the series, accompanied by dialogue quotes blown up into a huge font and/or simple descriptive text of the ‘Prisoner Zero chased Amy down the stairs’ variety.

There are a few spot illos though, like this one from Gary Northfield, at the top of a gatefold poster thing:

Sorry to anyone who feels I’ve spoiled the ‘slamdown’ for them.

As I was mainly buying this to see what it was like, then carbon freeze it in case the national run never happens and this becomes a collector’s item, I didn’t really look at the game stuff. Sorry.

Nicest thing in the issue from my skimming, 34 year old non-card-gamer perspective was Jamie Smart’s double page spread of hundreds of Ood, a Doctor Who-themed  spin on his forthcoming Where’s Chaffy? book:

I love Smart’s stuff, and this is no exception – a delightful, cute take on the characters and monsters.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve already got a house (and off-site storage lock-up) heaving with piles of Who related junk, I’d be tempted to buy DWMI regularly just for these and dump all the cards on friends’ kids.

Anyway, that’s Doctor Who: Monster Invasion, coming soon to a newsagent near you, maybe.

Sorry I’m not posting here much, not much to tell right now. If you want proper content, look ye to Shiny Shelf, which is bursting with stuff right now.


April 15, 2010. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. 6 comments.


Snow Not much blogging at the moment as winter has taken its grip (although, as the snow in London this morning barely lasted until noon, not that tight a grip), and in between the storms and snow I’ve been busy running around: from London to the North, then back to London for a couple of days, and off to Devon tomorrow for the weekend.

Meanwhile, in a follow up to an earlier post, the attempts by ‘Doctor Who’ fans to get ‘Love Don’t Roam’ into the Top 40 have failed, and indeed met with notably less success than Chris Moyles similar scheme with Billie’s ‘Honey to the Bee’. While it would have been nice to see Neil Hannon and Murray Gold dominating the charts like fey collosi, in some ways it’s reassuring that fans don’t have that much influence over reality. After all, what would follow a ‘Who’ fan takeover of the charts? Government? The world?

A world structured around fandom would be a dystopian feudal throwback with citizens prostrating themselves before the whims of their egocentric masters in the hope of favour, luckless serfs clinging to the edges of rival factions. Sycophancy would be the currency of the realm, and tongues would be removed from anyone heard to utter the dread words ‘talent’ or ‘ability’. And, dear god, can you imagine the corruption scandals that would ensue, presuming some kind of rule of law was even allowed by the lords of this brave new world?

Better, then, that ‘Who’ fans can’t even swing the pop charts in their favour, let alone sweep their own government into power.


January 25, 2007. Tags: , . Uncategorized. Comments off.


…this is where my blog starts, although I’m editing this in March 2010. The move to wordpress seems a good excuse to clean out some old rubbish along the way.

History is written by the victors. Or, in this case, whoever has editing rights.


October 30, 2006. Tags: , , . Uncategorized. Comments off.