British writer and television producer Victor Pemberton passed away on August 13th. He was 85 years old. I was a fan of Pemberton’s work, and over the past several years I had corresponded with him via e-mail. Based on his e-mails, and on interviews he gave, he appeared to be a warm, intelligent man.
Victor Pemberton and Sprocket
Pemberton was born on October 10, 1931 in Islington, London. His experiences a decade later, living through the terrible events of the Blitz during World War II, were a formative influence. Decades later Pemberton wrote a series of 15 historical novels set in mid-20th Century London. He described these books as, at least in part, “an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind.”
One of Pemberton’s earliest successes as a writer was in 1966, when he penned The Slide, a seven part science fiction radio drama broadcast weekly by the BBC from February 1 to March 27, 1966. This eerie, atmospheric drama starred Roger Delgado and Maurice Denham.
In the newly developed English town of Redlow, several earthquakes have occurred. This in itself is odd, as the area is considered geographically stable. Things become considerably more unusual when a mysterious greenish-brown mud begins to ooze out of the fissures in the ground. Not only is this mud highly acidic, it seems to have a life of its own, spreading out across flat ground, and even creeping uphill.
Called in to investigate these mysterious phenomena is Professor Josef Gomez, a South American seismologist portrayed by Delgado. Gomez previously encountered similar earth tremors in the nearby English Channel. Assisted by local scientific authorities, the Professor makes a startling discovery. The mud, it turns out, is not only a living entity, but it is also sentient. And it has the ability to telepathically influence certain individuals, driving many of the residents of Redlow to madness and suicide. Gomez and his colleagues find themselves in a race against time, struggling to halt the lethal mudslide before it destroys the entire town.
Like so much other television and radio material from the 1960s, the master copy of the radio play was purged from the BBC archives. Fortunately, Pemberton himself recorded all the episodes of The Slide during their original broadcast. Decades later, he discovered the tapes in his garage. This stroke of luck allowed the BBC to restore the recordings and release them on CD in 2010.
In 1967 Pemberton became involved with the Doctor Who television series. He acted in a small part in “The Moonbase” and served as Assistant Script Editor on “The Evil of the Daleks.” Pemberton was then promoted to Script Editor on the next serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis.
Among his contributions to “Tomb of the Cybermen,” Pemberton scripted a scene in the third episode which showed the character of Victoria Waterfield, who had joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the previous story, adjusting to her new life.
THE DOCTOR: Are you happy with us, Victoria?
VICTORIA: Yes, I am. At least, I would be if my father were here.
THE DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know.
VICTORIA: I wonder what he would have thought if he could see me now.
THE DOCTOR: You miss him very much, don’t you?
VICTORIA: It’s only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man, I shall never forget him. Never.
THE DOCTOR: No, of course you won’t. But, you know, the memory of him won’t always be a sad one.
VICTORIA: I think it will. You can’t understand, being so ancient.
THE DOCTOR: Eh?
VICTORIA: I mean old.
THE DOCTOR: Oh.
VICTORIA: You probably can’t remember your family.
THE DOCTOR: Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing. There’s nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.
It is a beautifully written scene which is wonderfully performed by Patrick Troughton and Deborah Watling.
Pemberton decided to leave the Script Editor position after only one story in order to concentrate on his writing. He quickly produced the scripts for the six part Doctor Who serial “Fury from the Deep,” which was broadcast in 1968. Regrettably only a few short clips from the story are known to still survive, along with the complete audio soundtrack and some behind-the-scenes footage taken during the filming of the final episode. Nevertheless older fans of the series who saw “Fury from the Deep” when it was first broadcast have very fond memories of it. Eighteen years later Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize the serial for the range of Doctor Who books published by Target. When I read that book at the tender age of eleven, I found it to be incredibly scary.
“Fury from the Deep” is also noteworthy in that it contained the debut of the Doctor’s now-iconic sonic screwdriver, which was devised by Pemberton. The serial also saw the tearful farewell of Victoria from the show.
Pemberton would write for Doctor Who on one other occasion. In 1976 he scripted “The Pescatons,” the very first Doctor Who audio adventure. It starred Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize “The Pescatons” for Target in 1991.
After he left Doctor Who, Pemberton went onto a long & prolific career working in British television and radio.
In 1983 Pemberton became involved in the British version of the Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock. The series was about a group of funny and bizarre creatures, the Fraggles, who lived in a vast, wondrous subterranean civilization. The Fraggles and their neighbors, the diminutive builders known as the Doozers and the giant bad-tempered Gorgs, were all brought to life by Henson’s amazing Muppet creations.
Fraggle Rock was broadcast in a number of foreign countries, and different framing segments involving a human character and his dog Sprocket (a Muppet) were recorded for each market. In the original American version, the human was the eccentric inventor Doc. As a writer on the first season of the British version, Pemberton devised the human character of “The Captain,” a lighthouse keeper in Cornwall. Pemberton became the producer of the British version from the second season onward.
When I e-mailed Pemberton in 2010 asking him about his time on Fraggle Rock, he had fond memories of his time working with the Muppets:
“It was a great fun series to do, with a lot of talent involved, something one always got from the late, lamented Jim Henson and his team. Needless to say, Sprocket, as in every version, was my hero of the show, mischievous and lovable to the last!”
One of Pemberton’s most acclaimed works was a trilogy of radio plays for the BBC based on the lives of his parents. The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore was broadcast in 1978, with the next two installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea, airing in 1987. These three radio plays would form the basis for the first of his historical novels, Our Family, published in 1990.
Our Family was a wonderful book, and I made sure to let Pemberton know how much I enjoyed it. He appreciated my kind words. In his response he noted:
“A few years ago, an historian referred to my novels as ‘archives of true family life during the London blitz of the Second World War’. I hope that’s true, and that, through the simplicity of the stories, current and future generations will have the opportunity to understand what it meant to live through those times. After all, without knowing about the past, there can be no genuine future.”
In the later years of his life Pemberton retired to Murla, Spain. He was kind enough to autograph copies of his two Doctor Who novels which I mailed to him in 2010. I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to correspond with Pemberton over the last several years. He was a wonderful writer, and will definitely be missed.