Alien Nation

Last week I went up to Newcastle for Alien Nation, a two-day conference on telefantasy (i.e. British SF, fantasy, and horror television). James Chapman’s Inside the TARDIS and Catherine Johnson’s Telefantasy battled for citation supremacy, but surely the fairy godmother of the conference was Network DVD, purveyors of retro television series to the discerning. Gone are the days when washed out Nth generation video copies of UK Gold repeats were the only available window onto childhood memories. Network, we salute you. (Warning: clicking on the link to Network will result in serious damage to your finances.)

I’m not going to attempt a full write-up of the conference here, chiefly because Frank Collins has archived his live blog of the event here, covering papers on Nigel Kneale, Doctor Who, Doomwatch, Children of the Stones, Outcasts, The Owl Service, The Clifton House Mystery, The Professionals; and, thematically, on gender, music, what makes British telefantasy “British”, the Gothic in children’s television, etc. etc. Really, go and have a look through Frank’s heroic set of notes, annotated liberally and joyously with great pictures and relevant footage.

Just to pick out a few highlights of the conference for me:

  • The panel on 1970s and 80s dystopia: A panel made for me – YES I AM ALL ABOUT THE BUREAUCRACY. Papers looking at Doomwatch (and Wombling Free); the 1977-78 dystopian series 1990, starring Edward Woodward (which has sadly never been repeated or released); Threads and The Tripods; and Children of the Stones. All series that portray a downbeat and declining industrial power stifled by bureaucracy and lacking the energy to imagine escape routes, like a concrete Gormenghast.
  • Derek Johnston’s paper on music in Terry Nation’s Survivors: there’s hardly any music in Survivors, apart from one piece of non-diegetic music, and the rest either recorded, or performed by cast members. This was great: Johnston showed how recorded music indicated characters who wanted a return to social order, while people performing their own music welcomed the end of technological society and the new rural world. Johnston connected this up to themes in the English folk revival. A really interesting paper. I don’t instinctively “read” the music of television programmes, and particularly appreciate this enhancement of my understanding of a show.
  • Peter Wright’s superb keynote on the 1971 BBC adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s trilogy of children’s novels, The Changes. Peter has done extensive research at the BBC archives in Caversham, and interviewed adaptor Anna Home (a significant figure in BBC children’s television). A model of research and analysis, with thoughtful reflections on how race is handled in both book and adaptation. The highlight of the conference for me.
  • The emergence of what Peter Wright dubbed the Doctor Who carbon dating system: when an obscure programme is being discussed, refer to whatever Doctor Who was being broadcast at the same time in order to orientate one’s audience. In the case of The Changes (broadcast 6 January – 10 March 1975) this would be from the middle of “Robot” to the beginning of “Genesis of the Daleks”. Handy.

My train back was on Thursday evening, so sadly I didn’t get to see Penda’s Fen (BBC Play For Today from 1974). But what a great couple of days, listening to people talk about, and getting to talk about, stuff that I love. The folk working in this field are amongst the friendliest, most welcoming, most collegiate set of academics I’ve ever met. Really glad I made the trip, even if I returned home with a Network shopping list long as my arm.

4 Responses to “Alien Nation”

  1. Tony V. says:


    I have been somewhat recently converted to the dark side and in the past 3 years have grown into a hardcore Whovian. I have not yet tested the waters of the novelizations, as there are many to begin with, but I am very close to starting my adventure with your books!

    I was given your name by your brother and sister-in-law who were over in the U.S. at my wife’s cousin’s bar mitzvah. They shared stories of baseball and their love of some American things, while my wife and I countered with our thirst for more and more things British (as we have always lived in the States and Doctor Who has only opened up more avenues to explore). We mentioned Doctor Who, and your brother turned an embarrassing shade of red and told us that you were involved with fanfiction and even write Doctor Who novels.

    Since we have all of the new series, and about 75% of the old series releases so far, I figured why not start with someone we have a very distant connection with?

    I will be ordering the 2 hardcovers from Amazon within the next week and I look forward to the adventures you have written about.


    Tony V.

  2. Una McCormack says:

    Hi Tony!

    Good to hear from you! What a wonderful coincidence! You have some great novels ahead of you, and if you like collecting, then you’re also in for a treat – many of the older books are out-of-print now, and some of them are quite rare!

    Hope you enjoy The King’s Dragon and The Way Through the Woods. Of the other most recent books (with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory), I particularly recommend Borrowed Time by Naomi Alderman, Touched by an Angel by Jonathan Morris, and Dead of Winter by James Goss. (In fact, I’d recommend anything written by James Goss, and if you also like Torchwood, he has also written some terrific novels for that show.)

    You might also be interested in the recent reprints of some classic novelizations of old series stories. (I loved these books as a kid; devoured the collection in my local library.) And next year the “missing” Tom Baker story “Shada”, scripted by Douglas Adams, will finally get a novelization, by the brilliant Gareth Roberts.

    You have so much fun stuff ahead of you! Enjoy!

    And thank you so much for getting in touch!


  3. Boom says:

    I’ve been to this, though I think it had a less entertaining name at the time… something like the Conference on Politics and Popular Culture. Thanks to finaglings of my poor, long suffering dissertation supervisor I also managed to get in free by helping with the reception.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear they are still hosting it! And in June, which is infinitely more preferable than whatever ungodly winter month they had done it when I attended.

    Honestly, though, the papers seem to be of a lot higher quality this time time around. I hope they host it another year! And I hope people start to take this sort of research more seriously!

  4. Una McCormack says:

    It was a fantastic conference, and I believe there are plans for another one next year. I’ll certainly be there – hope you can make it!

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