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Ian Stuart Black

Obituary by Paul Scoones

Ian Stuart Black died on 13 October 1997, aged 82.

Black wrote three stories for Doctor Who in the sixties: The Savages, The War Machines and The Macra Terror. In the eighties he novelised all three of his stories. Beyond his association with Doctor Who, Ian Stuart Black enjoyed a long and distinguished writing career spanning more than fifty years, in theatre, film, television and novels.

Born in 1915, Ian first developed a passion for writing at the age of seven, and quickly learned to profit from his work by selling his stories to his cousin. Encouraged by his father's theatrical background, Ian wrote a play which looked very likely as if it would be produced but then the Second World War broke out and Ian went off to serve in the RAF in Egypt. While he was away, his wife showed his play to the film company Rank Organisation at Pinewood Studios, and when he returned from the war in 1945 he was invited by Rank to work for them as a staff writer.

After three years at Rank writing for the cinema, Ian moved into writing for television - which at this point was still very new - and soon discovered that he preferred this medium. The first thing he wrote for television was an episode of a 1954 BBC police series called Fabian of the Yard, and from that point onwards found himself almost always in work writing for television. On the few occasions when he wasn't working on a series, Ian filled the gap by writing a novel and then shrewdly selling the film rights to the book. The most well-known of Ian's films is probably the 1965 British film The High Bright Sun, made by Rank and starring Dirk Bogarde. The screenplay was adapted by Black from his own novel.

Ian's television writing credits in the fifties included episodes of series such The Adventures of William Tell and H G Wells' The Invisible Man. In 1960 Ian helped devise the premise for Danger Man, the sixties espionage series starring Patrick McGoohan, and wrote a number of episodes for the first season - including some for which he received no on-screen credit. In 1961 Ian wrote several episodes of the Elizabethan adventure series, Sir Francis Drake, and later, in the mid-sixties, scripted three episodes of The Man in Room 17

Ian Stuart Black had become established as a prolific and respected British television writer by the mid-sixties, and had even attracted the attention of an American company, for whom he had written a television thriller. The thriller caught the attention of someone at the BBC, and Ian found himself invited to write an eight part drama serial called Ransom for a Pretty Girl, produced by Alan Bromly (later the director of two Doctor Who stories: The Time Warrior and Nightmare of Eden).

The office adjacent to Bromly's at the BBC was the Doctor Who production office, and when Ian noticed this, he decided to introduce himself. Although he was an established name in television, he found that his children didn't believe he was a writer because he'd never written for Doctor Who. This motivated Ian to approach the Doctor Who production team to ask if he could write a story, and discovered that they were delighted and amazed that a writer of his stature would want to write for the programme.

Producer John Wiles commissioned Ian Stuart Black in January 1966 to develop the basic outline of a story which Ian had pitched in his first meeting. The story, at first called The White Savages and later just The Savages, was born out of Black's idea for a perfect civilisation built on the corrupt practice of sapping the life essence from people kept like animals. Ian was assigned the task of writing out regular companion Steven (played by Peter Purves), at the end of the story.

[First Doctor and War Machine]

Just two months after his commission for The Savages, Black was commissioned to write a second story for the series. Initially called The Computers, the idea for this serial had been developed based on discussions between script editor Gerry Davis and the show's new unofficial scientific adviser, Dr Kit Pedler. BBC staff writer Pat Dunlop had been expand their ideas into a set of scripts, but had to withdraw due to a clash of commitments with another series, and Black was asked to take over the writing of the story, which was renamed The War Machines. Black recalled later that the ideas he adopted that were given to him by Pedler and Davis involved the newly-constructed Post Office Tower in London, and computers. Everything else that happened in the story was his own invention, and freely admitted that he might have ignored further plot suggestions for the story, preferring instead to develop his own ideas.

Ian Stuart Black was already working on The War Machines when he was asked to write out Dodo and introduce to new companions - Ben and Polly. Ben replaced a character called Rich in Ian's storyline.

Not long after completing work on The War Machines, Ian was commissioned once more to write for Doctor Who, this time for Patrick Troughton's first season. Ian built his initial story idea around the new Doctor's character which he perceived as darkly comic and unpredictable - qualities which he envisioned as ideally suited to somewhere falsely happy and actually quite grim under the surface, such as a holiday camp like Butlins. He also wanted to incorporate a race of aliens who would drown in air just as humans drown in water. These creatures - the Macra - were originally envisioned as spiders or insects in his scripts, and his working titles for the story were The Spidermen, The Insect-Men and The Macras, before eventually settling on The Macra Terror.

Ian's association with Doctor Who ended after The Macra Terror, although he did begin working on one further story, a six part serial called The Furies which was never completed because, as he later recalled, he instead went out to the West Indies to work for a French company. He did however return to continue his prolific television career working on late sixties and early seventies series such as Adam Adamant Lives!, Redgauntlet, The Champions and Star Maidens. In the seventies he worked on a number of Australian co-productions for television including Elephant Boy, Castaway, Tully and The Outsiders.

After 1975, Ian concentrated mostly on writing novels, beginning with a spy story called The Man on the Bridge and later the supernatural thrillers Creatures of a Dream and Cry Wolf. In the mid-eighties, Ian renewed his association with Doctor Who when he was contacted by the publishers W H Allen, seeking his permission to novelise his stories. Ian was horrified at the idea of some other writer adapting his work, so agreed to write the three books himself. The Savages was published in 1986, The Macra Terror in 1987 and The War Machines in 1989.

In recent years, Black made a television comeback with House of Glass and one of his plays, We Must Kill Tony, also received a nineties revival. Ian's Doctor Who work also received renewed recognition with the recent restoration and subsequent video release of The War Machines, the only one of his three stories which survives in the BBC's archives.

This item appeared in TSV 54 (March 1998).