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Adapting The Blue Angel

In May 2005, June Hudson was invited to the University of Redlands in Southern California to teach an intensive class on design for science fiction television, drawing on her extensive experience on BBC productions such as Survivors, Blake’s 7 and, of course, Doctor Who. Students produced a full portfolio of designs for “Shada,” working to a realistic budget for a pilot episode of a Hollywood-produced ‘specialIty’ TV series. To make a plausible scenario (but avoid undue influence from the Eccleston/Tennant series), an HBO/BBC revival of Doctor Who starring Paul McGann was posited. The whole dramatis personae was cast, again as plausibly as possible, because June Hudson rightly insists that a costume must always be designed for an actor in performance, not for a character in abstract.

The class was an enormous success, and one of its legacies was a set of designs by June Hudson herself, which will feature on a Myth Maker DVD of her Doctor Who work, and next year on a special website. Another legacy was that June was asked to return to Redlands in May 2007 to teach the class again. Characteristically, she decided to ‘up the ante’ somewhat. Instead of a direct repetition, June wanted to alter the scenario to encompass challenges unique to episodic television. In next year’s course, students will design not for a pilot (which in some ways is like designing for a oneoff feature film) but for a putative midseason episode – which means that they have to take into account what has gone before in terms of precedent and tone.

One of the reasons for choosing “Shada” for the first iteration of the class was that it was a readily available script for a Doctor Who episode that was never realized on television. There is a dearth of such scripts (unless one wanted to turn to something like The Masters of Luxor, which was frankly unappealing). There seemed little alternative, therefore, but to produce something wholly new – or an adaptation of a Doctor Who story in another medium. But if a novel or audio was to be adapted, then the question remained: which one?

While she was in California, I introduced June Hudson to The Scarlet Empress, feeling sure that the character of Iris Wildthyme would appeal to her. This expectation was borne out: during her threeweek stay, she raced through that book and Verdigris, and was so enthused that she produced a splendid drawing of Iris – basing her, without prompting, on Beryl Reid, with whom June had worked on The Frankie Howerd Show in the early 70s. June was enraptured by Paul Magrs’ stories, and when it came time to decide on something to use next year, she was keen that it should be based on a Magrs piece. I agreed to try to adapt one of his entries in the Doctor Who canon.

Since the Magrs audios are inevitably geared to dialogue rather than spectacle, I turned to the books, and at length chose The Blue Angel. For all its narrative complexity, and the untranslatable delights of its mercurial prose, this particular Magrs novel offered the richest seam of possibilities for the designer: not one, but three Irises; alternate versions of the Doctor and Fitz; figures from Doctor Who’s past; and a gorgeous pageant of fantastical new characters ranging from the baleful elephant king Daedalus, via the Steigertrudes and Ghillighast to the denizens of Phoenix Court, and Paul Magrs’ wonderfully shopsoiled cousins of the Federation dogooders in Star Trek.

While I make no claims for the quality of the script, I will pay tribute to Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad by saying that the process of adaptation was almost ludicrously easy. For the most part I had to cut rather than alter, since the dialogue from the novel is just as compelling in the new context. The biggest changes to the text itself were the translations of first person narration, where it was either ‘plotty’ or just too lyrical (or amusing) to lose, into voiceover internal monologues or, in a few places, dialogue between two characters.

There are other kinds of changes – to the cast of characters and thus, to a more limited extent, to some of the action. Because we wanted students to build on precedents established in June’s designs for the first iteration of the course, we kept the character of Romana from “Shada,” replacing Compassion. Also, since we again wanted to cast the show plausibly, I had to replace the cameos by the Third and Second Doctors with those played by living actors. I chose the Sixth and Fifth to stand in – and, perhaps getting a little carried away, I managed to find ways to introduce the Seventh and Fourth as well. (I think it is fair to say that if anything could persuade Tom Baker to return to the series, it would be the presence of his longstanding friend Miss Hudson as costume designer!) The character of Sally is also complemented with other Obverse variants on past Doctor Who companions.

This is, inevitably, a tendentious version of The Blue Angel – but one of the pleasures of screen entertainment is that what is lost in the reader’s intimacy with the text is offset by the way that the television script acquires interpretive ‘layers’ before it reaches the audience. Here (alas), there will be no broadcast; but we will, in due course, have the opportunity to see The Blue Angel through the prism of June Hudson’s remarkable creative vision.

Piers Britton, 2006

Piers Britton is an Associate Professor in Art History at the University of Redlands in California, who has previously coauthored the book, Reading Between Designs with Simon Barker, which contained a section on design in Doctor Who.

He is currently teaching a class in Costume Design with noted Doctor Who designer, June Hudson (creator of Tom Baker's Season 18 burgundy outfit amongst a plethora of other work).