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"The Empress of Othernow" was a Doctor Who stageplay written for Huntingdon Drama Club, as one of the plays presented to celebrate the Club's 50th Anniversary. It was performed four times in Huntingdon, in November 1994, to packed houses. Cyberman on the Huntingdon stage
The Club had presented a wide range of costume dramas, thrillers, comedies and general theatre, but had never delved into science fiction previously. I had joined the club some years before, and I was one of the Club's committee. The original idea for a Doctor Who play came out of casual discussions I had with the Club's stage crew, and in particular the lighting director, who was bemoaning the lack of challenge in the plays the Club presented. Little did John know what he was letting himself in for with those casual words. We were both fans of Doctor Who, and joked about presenting a play based on the series.
The trouble with jokes like that is that they can be taken seriously. A few months later, the Club committee were discussing what we could present in our 50th year, that would be innovative and different. Doctor Who was mooted..... and the idea accepted. With the "joke" now being taken seriously, I volunteered to write a stage play. I had done a certain amount of professional writing previously, for magazines such as White Dwarf and Adventurer, but nothing quite like this before. With two clear years before the 50th Anniversary, I thought I would not have too many problems. Hmmmm.....
The author as cyberman
The first draft set the basic structure: a time paradox, based around Ancient Rome, utilising cybermen as the main villains. Daleks were too difficult both for copyright and for size - they simply were too large for the Club's stage. The early text had a working title of the Silver Legion; the far snappier "Empress of Othernow" did not materialise until very late in the proceedings. It took over a year for me to produce a plot that worked, was the right length, and could be staged with the resources and skills available to the Club, and in budget. Click here for a summary of the plot.
Ruth Morgan With a completed script, I was able to hand over much of the headaches to the stage crew, who had to convert my deathless prose into practical staging. We also wrote to the BBC, asking for permission to stage the play. Much time passed, and the intended performance dates were getting worryingly close (8 months away) before we finally got approval from the BBC to use the names Doctor Who, TARDIS, cybermen and so forth.
Another cuddly cyberman
The next stages were a Director, and some cybermen. These, at least, were less of a problem. I did not have the experience or knowledge to direct. Fortunately, more capable hands were waiting in the wings. Ruth Morgan had not previously directed for Huntingdon Drama Club, but had experience from other drama groups, as well as experience on the Huntingdon stage with pantomimes, giving her the practical skills of coping with a technically complex production. She was also enthusiastic and suitably masochistic.
Adam Greaves & Paul Sweeney = cybermen The cybermen came from a company called Who Books, run by Alex Richards. I met him at a science fiction fair in Peterborough, broached the question of costumes, and he responded within a couple of months to say that he had found us a pair of gorgeous "Earthshock" cybersuits. Suddenly, it seemed as though we were in business.
The stage crew set to work building sets, while Ruth auditioned a clutch of optimistic (and in some cases frighteningly young) hopeful Doctors and companions, not to mention wannabe cybermen. The cast selected at the audition ranged from very experienced club stalwarts - Emperor Augustus was played by Jack Hyde, a founder member of the Club in 1944, while Bob Pugh as the Doctor and Maggie Redgrave as Livia were also longtime members - through to rank newcomers - Paul Sweeney, a Doctor Who fan, came to the auditions with virtually no stage experience, was cast as a cyberman due to his height, and ended up enjoying the experience so much that he is now a Club regular. The Doctor faces Livia - an early publicity image
Act two: Augustus meets the "gods" With sets designed, cybercostumes obtained, and the production cast, the only remaining headache were the special effects. The stage crew, led by Christopher Hunnam and Bob and Karen Beattie, worked major miracles to cope with the demands of the script. These ranged from the complex (making the TARDIS materialise live on stage) to the straightforward apart from size (two massive pyrotechnics - explosions - which were the largest the club had ever used). The TARDIS effect was done with a gauze across in front of the police box: when lit from in front, it appeared like a solid surface, effectively becoming indistinguishable from the background; when lit from behind, it was entirely see-through. By changing the lighting, the gauze vanishes and the TARDIS materialises! A simple, old effect, used from Edwardian times, but very effective.
Sound effects were another major area that the club was not used to handling. The cybercostumes had to be equipped with radio-mikes, and the resultant sound output suitably cyberised (a task that gave our sound expert, Bob Wilson, some pause for thought, before he came up with a solution that sounded right). We also needed incidental music: fortunately, another club member, Nick Thompson, was willing to write original material and perform it live to fit the action on stage. The rebels take over the security centre
The "balcony" front of house Part of the style of the production was that it was intended, in true Doctor Who fashion, to jump from scene to scene fast, without any delays for scene changes. To achieve this, the crew constructed a small additional stage front of house (in front of the curtain) where actors could stand and talk, while the stage crew changed the main scenery behind the curtain. In the first Act, this stage became the lift between the floors; in the second, it was a balcony overlooking the city where Augustus Caesar would stand and pontificate.
The sets looked magnificent, and the scene changes worked extremely well, despite the dismay of the stage crew at the very tight timing of the changes. With everything in place, the club's publicity team went into overdrive. The name "Doctor Who" created interest the Club did not usually get for its productions; we even got Anglia Television to bring a camera and reporter from Norwich to report on the show, as well as getting coverage in all the local press. There was a general "buzz" around the area about the play, and all four performances played to substantial audiences. Cybermen prepare to destroy the world
Livia gloats over her prisoners The play was the most successful production financially that Huntingdon Drama Club had presented. It also impressed Alex Richards of Who Books, who had come along to see the play (and make sure we were not abusing his costumes!). He asked us if we would put the play on at AylCon2, a Doctor Who convention in Birmingham the following February. With such flattery, how could we refuse? Of course, only after agreeing we began to think about the logistics of shifting the sets and the props, rehiring the costumes, and sorting out sound and lighting again. The project became quite nightmarish - only the capable common sense of John Morgan and Chris Hunnam got the play to AylCon in reasonable shape, and to another appreciative audience.
The play was far harder to present than any of the Club expected when the idea was first mooted - but it was also more successful than any of us imagined. In the quiet months after the end of the production, the prospects of a sequel were bandied around, but without any real confidence that it would happen. But over the following years, the dream of a sequel did not fade away completely - cast and crew from "Empress" continued to demand a sequel. Nearly ten years after the first show finally finished, the Club decided to take the plunge again -"The Sleepers in the Marsh" was intended for presentation in late Autumn 2003. The plan was for the intrepid Doctor (and the very brave stagecrew) to be confronted by smugglers and sea devils on the south coast of England in the eighteenth century. The God-Empress reveals her cybernature to the Doctor
With the script completed, and plans afoot, all we needed was the permission of the BBC to use their copyright character. Recalling the events last time, we wrote for permission, and concentrated on pre-production. A sea devil, annoyed that it can't be on stage With the plans well advanced, the hall booked, and the director ready, I got an email from BBC Worldwide. Polite, pleasant, but refusing permission. We could not use their copyright. Of course, I now know why not - a few months later, the BBC announced a new series. "The Sleepers in the Marsh" was abandoned, much to my chagrin. Maybe in a few years' time...

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