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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Who goes there? Helix, Daleks and Things in the ice

News of a new show, Helix, that is starting on Syfy tomorrow, set me thinking about a concept that I pitched to them ten years ago. The original concept was for a Doctor Who story, cooked up immediately after watching the disappointing Paul McGann TV movie (not that it was his fault).

In my version, the reboot picked up after an unspecified regeneration which in my ur-text was probably from third to fourth Doctor. The action was set in a biotech research base in the Antarctic, where scientists had recovered fragments of alien DNA and were trying to reconstruct the original organisms. One was a microbe that metabolized metals (it had to be kept suspended in a magnetic bubble) but there was also another, more complex, alien lifeform that appeared to have no external sensory organs, all of its nerve connections coming to a single neural router.

This was a way of bringing the Daleks back, in fact. The complex organism was the Dalek itself. The microbe was something they had engineered to build their casings, much as coral grows a reef or how human DNA grows a skeleton, come to that. Such story sleight-of-hand would also justify a redesign of the Daleks so that we could have them hover a foot off the ground (to be accomplished with a green screen skirt at the bottom) and never again have to listen to that, "What about stairs?" crap. Considering that I came up with the entire plot in thirty minutes over a glass of wine while post-morteming the TV movie, I was particularly pleased with the double-bluff climax too, where the thing you think will stop the Daleks gives them no trouble whatsoever.

I worked the outline up with my wife, who is also a writer, and we talked to Terry Nation's agent, but the wheels were already turning for the BBC to reboot Doctor Who by then. And even so, pitching a TV show is an uphill struggle as it is. Adding another man's IP to your load is like yomping across the Brecon Beacons with a sackful of bricks.

That explains why, when we came to pitch it around the networks a couple of years ago, Jamie and I substituted our own aliens for the Daleks. That version is called Starborn and you can read it here. That's much the most polished outline we did. Jamie and I moved the action to the Arctic Circle, linked it all to the Tunguska event, and wrapped it up as a full movie. I would love to have made it, although now it would just look like we'd copied Helix.

But in case you're interested in the original Dr Who version, read on. It's not every day you get fanfic on the Fabled Lands blog. And kudos to John W Campbell, of course.



Doctor Who reboot pilot: “Who Goes There?”

By Roz and Dave Morris (1996)

An American military helicopter, flying near the South Pole. On board are several special forces soldiers, plus two civilians. The civilians, two men, are wearing survival blankets, and have obviously been picked up nearby. Two soldiers, Murphy and Powell, are guarding them with guns, and a third, Captain Evans, is watching their every move. The two civilians seem relatively unperturbed by this scrutiny. The one with Murphy looks around at the helicopter interior with mild curiosity; the one with Powell seems to be directing his attention inward as though meditating. They don’t talk to each other.
They travel for a while in silence. The civilian being guarded by Murphy eventually says to Captain Evans: ‘You can contact UNIT. They will tell you who we are.’
Captain Evans replies crisply: ‘We have been advised that you can alter your appearance. We have protocols for that too.’
The civilian raises an eyebrow and returns to his idle survey of the helicopter interior. His accent was not American, unlike that of those around him. The other civilian surfaces from his meditation and fixes his eyes on Captain Evans for a while, looking at him with curiosity. His stare is intense and Captain Evans snaps at Powell: ‘Make sure you watch his every move.’

Captain Evans takes a call on his earpiece. It is the pilot. After a few moments Captain Evans tells Murphy and Powell that the craft is diverting. ‘Diverting where?’ says the civilian being guarded by Powell.
‘You don’t need to know where,’ says Captain Evans.
The pilot contacts Evans again. They are attempting to divert to a base but the base is a restricted area and will not allow them to land. Evans attempts to reason with them. Clearly the helicopter  is in difficulties.
The civilian with Murphy raises his voice above the hubbub and says calmly but authoritatively:  ‘If this helicopter fails mid-air we will die. We’ll simply have to land there and take the consequences.’ Reluctantly Captain Evans gives the order to land.

With difficulty, the pilots coax the ailing craft to a safe landing, They are on a windswept plain outside a long, low building. It could have been designed to blend in with the arid, snowless landscape around it. Immediately they are surrounded by guards in environment suits and escorted inside. Meanwhile the helicopter is towed into a hangar and in moments there is barely a sign that they have been there, as the fierce wind scours away any trace of their landing.

The Americans and their two prisoners are shown to a room and told to wait. It is a lounge area, with sofas and low tables, and CCTV surveillance. Captain Evans tells them that they are in a Gensec facility.
‘What’s a Gensec?’ asks Murphy. Despite the hiatus, he and Powell are still guarding the two strangers carefully.
The stranger with Powell speaks. ‘Genetically Secure. We’re in the heart of Antarctica. It’s cold, dry and sterile. This is a base for genetic engineering research. If any bacteria escape, they can’t spread because it’s like releasing them on the moon.’
Now we can get a closer look at the two prisoners. The one with Murphy is tall and athletic, with a quiet intelligent look about him. The one with Powell is a little smaller, but extremely forceful and intense.
Captain Evans snaps at them: ‘Our protocols will still be enforced, even in this temporary setback.’

The base is staffed partly by military, partly by scientists.  The base commander comes in, along with a scientist and two other soldiers. Captain Evans explains that they are American special forces and the base personnel systematically check the credentials of all the newcomers. When they ask about the two prisoners Captain Evans reports that the squad were sent to pick them up after an incident on one of the ice shelves. He will not divulge what the incident is, but gives a reference code.
The two prisoners speak to each other for the first time. ‘The Earth military are always so regimented,’ says the one with Powell. 
‘But that regimentation has its uses,’ says the other.

The pilot and co-pilot are working with the base’s engineers to repair the helicopter, but they estimate it will take a few hours. The base commander has checked out the visitors and briefed Captain Evans, and now they are allowed a little more freedom. The stranger with Murphy immediately makes for the main lab, still with his soldier guard, who will not let him out of his sight. In the lab are the chief scientist, Professor Dent, and her assistant, Dr Allen. Professor Dent is very prickly with the civilian, and looks particularly annoyed when he and his guard stroll off to explore the lab. The civilian with Powell joins them some minutes later.
The civilian with Murphy remarks on a molecular model on a computer screen. Startled at the depth of the man’s knowledge, Professor Dent replies: ‘I didn’t realise you were a scientist.’
‘The term scientist is too restrictive,’ replies the man. ‘What one does doesn’t define who one is.’ He goes back to inspecting the model on the screen. Professor Dent watches as the man with Powell leafs through a sheaf of test result sheets rapidly and with great concentration. She says a quiet word to Dr Allen and leaves the room.
When she comes back her manner has changed and she is more forthcoming. She says: ‘I found it very hard to get any information on the two of you. I had to hack in via the internet and even so there isn’t much. Eventually I got to UNIT. You should have said. Which one of you is the Doctor?’
The man with Powell replies: ‘We’re both scientifically trained.’
Professor Dent says: ‘I want to talk to you about what we’re doing here,’ and begins to ask if they have any experience of building life-forms.
Dr Allen, her assistant, interrupts. ‘They don’t have military clearance,’ he says severely, and argues with Professor Dent. The civilian with Murphy eventually coaxes Professor Dent to tell all.
Signals have been picked up from space from the CETI programme. They were immediately classified. No-one could make sense of them at first, then someone realised it was a genome. So the data was sent to Gensec to be synthesised. There are two genomes. One is very simple - a complex microbe that metabolises metal, quite rapidly. They have to keep it in a magnetic bottle as it eats glass too, only more slowly. They studied what it was doing with the metal and found it was weaving it into some sort of structure.
‘It was only a microbe,’ says Professor Dent. ‘It seemed to have a few simple behaviours for how it would weave, perhaps like a spider.’
The man with Powell interjected: ‘or like a termite?’
‘A termite?’ says Dent.
‘Because they know how each other think,’ says the man with Powell. ‘A few simple rules allow the termite to build complex structures including nests with cooling veins that maintain an absolute temperature.’
‘It’s emergence,’ says the man with Murphy. ‘The creation of complexity out of simple rules. Don’t worry, old girl, not your field.’
‘You said there were two genomes,’ says the man with Powell.
‘We’ve just finished the second one,’ says Dent. ‘This is the problem. We’re not sure if we’ve got something wrong. The organism is about the size of and not dissimilar to a trilobite. It has very complex neural tissue, but all the neural clusters come together in an organ which has no other contact.’
The man with Murphy says: ‘You mean it has all the nerves to operate limbs but no limbs.’
‘Only vestigial limbs,’ says Dent. ‘It’s hard to see how it could be a viable life form. Actually I wasn’t sure that there wasn’t an error in the process. So we grew twenty separate ones. And they’re all the same.’
‘What have you done with it?’ asks the man with Murphy.

At that moment, there is an alert. Base security rush into the lab and escort the two strangers out, with their guards, and Dent and her assistant are called away. The two strangers are escorted back to the lounge area where they were first held with the American soldiers, and on their way they overhear the reason for the alert: several of the complex organisms have escaped from the tanks where they were grown.
The man with Powell turns to the other man. ‘They seem to be very resourceful,’ he says.

The creatures have got into the ventilation shaft. One drops out and attacks one of the base’s soldiers. It seems to be trying to bite him. The soldier reacts in fright, throws the creature to the ground and kills it.

The creatures are rounded up and caught. One is missing, but Professor Dent assures everyone it can’t do any harm, and generally no one seems worried about it. The base commander orders them to be moved from their open tanks to the secure part of the lab where the magnetic bottles are, and for them to be secured under lids. ‘We don’t want any more to get out,’ he says.

The body of the squashed creature is returned to the lab, and Dent invites the two strangers to inspect it, explaining that it tried to attack a soldier. The two pore over it, interested, and the one with Murphy says: 'So they seem to be unreasoningly aggressive as well as resourceful.’ Dent types up some notes on a laptop, while Dr Allen ribs his colleague about not trusting her vital work to the network. ‘I don’t like the network,’ retorts Dent crossly.



The two strangers and Dent rejoin the others in the lounge area. Captain Evans reports that the helicopter is nearly ready, and soon they will be on their way. The armed guards continue to shadow the two civilians, who now seem to take no notice of them whatsoever and are having a philosophical discussion with Dent and her assistant Allen about why someone would broadcast a genome through space for someone to build. Dent speculates it could be a dying planet wanting to communicate. The stranger with Murphy remarks that this seems to be a very trusting thing to do: ‘People might synthesise your race merely to enslave them.’
Allen agrees: ‘Yes, it seems too private to send your genetic code out in that way.’
‘But how do you enslave a microbe or a virus?’ says Dent.
‘A virus..?’ repeats the man with Murphy. ‘If you had a virus that could spread unchecked through the universe, would you make it?’

Suddenly, the lights flicker and dim. Something is draining the power from the generator. The computers show that the drain is from the secure lab, otherwise known as the vault. Dent, Allen, Captain Evans, the two strangers and their guards and the base commander rush down. They find the doors are sealed.

The vault is built to survive a nuclear blast and proves impregnable.

With the power off, the base is much colder after a couple of hours. Everybody has been trying to work in emergency lighting, which casts an eerie dim glow. People are using torches but the batteries are rapidly becoming drained. Tempers are becoming frayed as all efforts to enter the vault prove futile. Captain Evans and hi men, who never quite trusted the two strangers, notices the two strangers do not seem to feel the cold as much as the others do, and everyone is looking at them with more suspicion. The base commander accuses them of having instigated this crisis, and they become more like prisoners again as Murphy and Powell redouble their guarding effort.
The base commander has the two strangers escorted away from the vault, but soon decides they are the only chance to solve the problem.
The one with Powell asks Dent: ‘Is the vault sealed off? How about the ventilation system?’
‘That isn’t big enough,’ says Dent. ‘It’s only a narrow duct. We couldn’t use that to enter the vault.’
‘No,’ the man with Murphy replies. ‘WE couldn’t.’ He meets his companion’s eyes and understanding passes between them. 
Dr Allen is down there too. He mentions that when the power went off a few hours ago, it would have deactivated the magnetic bottles.
The man with Powell lets out a long, thoughtful sigh. ‘So, was it mindless aggression or cunning? Perhaps the one who died did it to create a diversion.’
The man with Murphy has been working out what happened. ‘The creature that went missing got into the vault and used its vestigial limbs to turn off the bottle, freeing the microbes which are now metabolising everything. It also freed the other creatures. My guess is that those microbes are weaving something, possibly a complex piece of machinery.’

The commander peers into the vault. It is steamed up in there because the power is still on and it is warm. He says: ‘I can see something in there. It’s like domes or termite mounds. They’re moving. They’re coming  towards the door.’ He suddenly shouts. ‘Stand back!’
Captain Evans reacts immediately and tells his two men: ‘Prepare your weapons. The moment the doors open, fire!’
Dent tries to stop them ‘But wait,’ she says. ‘These creatures could be extra-terrestrials, they may not mean us any harm.’ She turns to one of the strangers for support. ‘We should try to communicate and reason with them.’
The stranger with Murphy says: ‘It’s unlikely we’ll be able to reason with them, but I don’t think the guns will do anything. Stand back!’
The doors open. The soldiers open fire into the vault with their sub machine guns. Massive fire power is unleashed into the room as they try to eradicate the unknown threat within. It goes on for what seems like ages, a barrage of bullets, sparks, ricochets and metallic sounds.

Finally Captain Evans shouts: ‘cease fire.’

Something is moving. It comes towards them, backlit by the remaining light from within the vault. A domed thing, moving smoothly across the bullet-littered floor.

It says: ‘Put down your weapons or you will be exterminated.’

A Dalek.

The Daleks immediately recognise the stranger with Murphy as the Doctor, and order the others to secure him under close confinement. As three Daleks escort them triumphantly away they can’t resist divulging their plan: to broadcast themselves through the universe so that advanced civilisations will pick them up and synthesise them.

The stranger with Powell, who is the Master, says ‘So they are perfectly placed to wipe out all the civilisations who would be a threat to them. You must admire their ingenuity.’

The Doctor replies: ‘I find nothing in them to admire.’

They exchange a conspiratorial look, and then the Master creates a diversion and the Doctor manages to run outside and escape. The Daleks decide not to pursue him, saying he will either die in the cold or come back in of his own accord.

The Daleks put the humans to work. They instruct the humans to reconfigure the satellite array so that they can receive more signals from outer space. They begin to wait for their messages, but a cosmic storm means they are interrupted. Meanwhile, the scientists are forced to give DNA samples.

The Master seems keen to engage the Daleks in conversation. He tells them: ‘I was studying the genome used to create you. It’s too great a task to build an entire structure from scratch. So the humans have used Earth animals for the redundant DNA – mice, worms, even humans. You’re not pure.’
The Dalek replies: ‘It does not matter. When the Daleks from Skaro get here our fate is immaterial.’

The Daleks’ message gets through and they have their orders from Skaro, plus another microbe to grow. Professor Dent and Dr Allen have ominous feelings about this. Then they overhear some Daleks discussing it; it is a microbe that will destroy all human life on the planet when mixed with human DNA – the samples that the Daleks took.

These Daleks have been restyled; the weaving process has allowed them to be adapted for their environment, so they float over rough terrain on a cushion of light-charged air.

After a little while outside, the Doctor comes back to the area where the soldiers and base staff are being held and gives himself up. Everyone is astonished that he managed to survive outside.
The Daleks are jubilant to have the Doctor in their clutches but also suspicious. They quickly arrive in force to question him. When he refuses to tell them what he has been doing they decide to try out their new microbe on him. Two Daleks pinion him against a wall and another approaches with a test tube in a glass box with a timer. The timer is set. The other humans in the room scream. The Master tries to reason with the Daleks, saying they’ll kill everyone and then they will have no servants to help them colonise the planet. The Daleks say ‘This does not matter; Daleks will find a way.’

The timer detonates and smashes the test tube.

Liquid spreads across the floor. The puddle from the test tube seems to grow even as you look at it, and vapour pours off it. The humans try to escape but their way is barred by Daleks. The humans start to collapse, coughing and panicking. The Doctor and the Master remain unharmed. The Daleks are worried – and ask each other why the humans have not begun to disintegrate – and why the Master and the Doctor are still standing. The doctor replies that the humans are merely sleeping – from a dose of opioid found in the medical unit. Then the Daleks start to bubble and distort – and the Doctor reveals that he swapped their deadly microbe for their metal-weaving microbe, which he has modified . The Daleks start to melt before their eyes, screaming in panic.

The Daleks die horribly as their casings melt and the power is shorted through the organic creature inside.

The humans start to wake up, one by one. The Doctor explains that he liberated something from the lab – Professor Dent’s laptop. ‘Very useful things, he said. I made a few modifications to the metal-weaving microbe. It just used very simple chemicals and didn’t really take any power.’ The Doctor takes something from his inside pocket. The lab staff and soldiers all gasp – it is the deadly microbe. The Doctor gives it to Professor Dent telling her to destroy it immediately.

The helicopter has been repaired and the party are ready to leave. The Americans immediately clap the Master into handcuffs before they all get into the helicopter and take off.

Meanwhile, back in the lab, Professor Dent notices one of her test tubes is missing – the one with the metal-eating microbe.

2 comments:

  1. Good job on your Doctor Who reboot. I might see what Helix is like when the show starts.

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    1. I should have explained that there were three phases to how we pitched this. Initially I came up with the story just to entertain friends who had come round to watch the 1990s Dr Who TV movie. Everyone was disappointed, and when I switched off the TV somebody said, "What story would you have told, Dave?" and I improvised the outline above.

      My wife Roz then began writing it up as a Dr Who novel with a strong flavour of the Third Doctor (her favorite) but she got too busy with other book projects to complete that. So I removed the Doctor and just made it a standalone Daleks story, and Tim Gummer (one of the Fabled Lands LLP directors) tried pitching that to Syfy, only Terry Nation's agent quickly explained that we would need BBC approval, as the Nation estate don't have sole ownership of the Daleks. (More's the pity, as they have obviously not been much appreciated by New Who's writers.)

      So, Jamie and I then developed the version you can get as a PDF from the link there. No Doctor, no Daleks, and a rather tighter thriller-type plot. That version has been swimming around LA for a few years now but I doubt if we'll ever get it off the ground now that Helix has trodden so much of the same ground. Still, sounds like it'll be an interesting show and one that can potentially break out of the Syfy genre rut.

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