Doctor Who – Who, Indeed?

“I believe, after having viewed the series for over half a century, that it has long-since reached the point where its title, “Doctor Who”, is no longer applicable.”

Following the recent sixtieth anniversary of the TV series Dr Who – and at a time when the good Doctor undergoes both regeneration/bigeneration of character and franchise – it seems timely (pun intended) to explore the very human adventures of the world’s most famous Time Lord. John Edwards Davies, the first elected President (1981 – 1982) of the Doctor Who Club of Victoria, presents ideas that hint at the universal nature of the human quest, as we all seek to journey through life transitioning from anonymous adventurer to a person of significance within our sphere of influence.

John Edwards Davies meets UK actor Ed Bishop from ‘UFO’ at Huttcon in November 1990

FANDOM:

“Fandom, after all, is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.” ― Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

Image by Jazella from Pixabay

I was born in January 1961 here in Melbourne, and my space-age childhood experience was replete with the multitude of science fiction/fantasy television being presented across all the TV channels [all four of them] throughout the 1960s. When I look back upon the amount of television programming dedicated to these genres, the total is nothing less than astonishing.

This includes servings from the USA: Irwin Allen (Lost In Space, Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants), Quinn Martin (The Invaders), Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek), Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits); fantasy comedy series, e.g, My Favorite Martian, Mr Ed, My Mother the Car, It’s About Time and I Dream of Jeannie; Hanna-Barbera SF cartoon series, e.g. Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles and The Herculoids; and Filmation’s Fantastic Voyage. From the UK: Gerry & Sylvia Anderson (Thunderbirds and UFO, etc), Roberta Leigh (Space Patrol), The Avengers, The Prisoner, Out of the Unknown; Japanese Anime Productions, The Samurai; and Australian children’s productions, including Mr Squiggle, The Magic Boomerang, The Magic Circle Club, The Stranger, Alpha Scorpio and Andra.

And not forgetting a BBC TV series created and produced within the confines of modest budget and studio allotment which came to remain in production for a quite long while, entitled Doctor Who.

I’m extremely gratified that this transpired as it signified that having discovered Doctor Who, I had therefore discovered the ABC, leading onto my discovering a raft of other British series in the following years which I believe have had a profound effect upon the formation of my identity. These include many celebrated historical & contemporary dramas and eternally iconic comedies, e.g. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, Callan, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies, all of which I embraced at a particularly tender age.

Image by sonywiz from Pixabay

When did you start watching Doctor Who?

I started watching Dr Who sometime around 1967/68 when actor William Hartnell’s era was ending, and Patrick Troughton’s era was beginning. Given that the ABC had contracted with the BBC to screen stories twice only on Australian television, premier stories were usually followed up by a repeat a year or so later.

During this timeframe, I could have been watching a Troughton premier followed by a Hartnell repeat the following week. My memories of this period as a six-to-seven-year-old are now regretfully miniscule and all the more poignant given how many of these stories have been long since destroyed by the BBC, possibly never to be seen again, except perhaps, reconstituted in the future by Artificial Intelligence.

When did you get involved in the club and why?

Doctor Who had been an almost exclusively solitary viewing experience for me during the sixties and seventies. I, being an only child did not have to compete with siblings in order to select and watch any program available for viewing during those years. This privilege extended to Doctor Who but it led me to believe on occasion that I was the only person watching the series.

Zerinza 14-16 (Pinterest)

So I was somewhat taken aback when I discovered a fanzine called Zerinza, dedicated to the series, available for purchase in Space Age Books in the CBD in 1978, which revealed that there was something of a fanbase in Australia – in this instance, Sydney – and that I might be able to share my viewing experience with other fans. It took me a year to muster up the gumption to initiate correspondence with Zerinza’s Editor/Publisher, Antony Howe, and I was quite thrilled that he deigned to respond, resulting in our establishing a friendship which continues today.

Leading on from the establishment of this interstate connection was the discovery of a local Melbourne Club, The Doctor Who Club of Victoria, administered by Croydon High School Teacher, Adrienne Losin, whose own newsletter, The Victorian Time Machine also appeared in Space Age Books. It contained contact details and scheduled monthly meetings which I realised I could attend.

My curiosity piqued, I began attending club meetings as of January 1980, and continued to do so throughout the rest of that year. It brought me into contact with fellow fans enabling me to at long last share in my appreciation of the series and establish several life-long friendships. It also rather rapidly and somewhat unexpectedly led to my ascending to a leadership role in the club, which I came to find quite satisfying.

Becoming the inaugural President of the club in the years 1981 & 1982 signified my earliest experience of assuming a leadership role, and I strongly believed that in terms of accountability and responsibility, to coin the phrase President Harry S. Truman frequently used: “the buck stops here.” I made it a point of attending every meeting during those two years and did not shirk in the role of decision making and in getting Sonic Screwdriver ready for posting at the bulk mail service discount rate at the Degraves Street branch of Australia Post.

I came to strongly believe that two years was quite sufficient in the role, and I made it clear that I would not be seeking re-election as President in 1983. I’m pleased that by doing that, I established some form of succession management within the Club.

My interest in remaining a member of the club began its inexorable decline over the subsequent years as I increasingly felt that I no longer wanted to associate myself as closely as I had become to organised Science Fiction/Fantasy fandom. In terms of personal development, I felt that remaining inside the bubble of the above would be like getting trapped within a cul-de-sac. Since leaving the club, I have never joined another science fiction/fantasy-based club, with the exception of The Nova Mob, and I remain content to just maintain casual social contact with those friendships I made back in the early 1980s.

What are your fondest/proudest memories of your involvement?

In May 1980, Barbara Billett, Judith Houston and I were elected as an Interim Committee as; Treasurer, Secretary & President respectively,

We succeeded in transforming the club from being a one person operation into one administered by a constitutionally governed committee. We continued to hold monthly meetings, produce our own regular newsletter, Sonic Screwdriver and the occasional fanzine, Supervoc.

One of our Supervocs presented a two tone, silver and black Cyberman cover illustration drawn by myself and printed by my father using an offset printing press he possessed within his garage.

I was particularly pleased to create a subgroup within the club called the Materials Reference Section (MRS) which acquired materials, primarily from the Jon Pertwee era which had been unseen on the ABC for a number of years.

We gained some publicity with my appearing on an episode of Shirl’s Neighbourhood in 1982. Sadly I didn’t get to meet the great man, Shirley Strachan himself, my being and still am a massive fan of Skyhooks. My thanks to Linda Bond for organising the Channel 7 production crew to come out and film a segment within the family lounge room.

We presented Christmas Parties at Foresters Hall RMIT in December 1980 & 1981 and then at The Richmond Rowing Club in December 1982. These parties were the absolute highlights of the club’s calendar for networking, building of fandom communities, and building the club. This was followed the year after with opportunity to to research Hartnell and Troughton material of antiquity.

I wish to express my sincerest thanks and gratitude to Barbara & Judith for their dedication and support throughout my Presidency of 1981 & 1982 and also to David Taylor & Linda Bond for their work as Vice President and Club Publicity Officer. Also deserving of recognition is Richard Freeland, Colin Gale & Tom Marwede, MRS officiators, splendid chaps, all of them. A special thanks to Leigh Snell for driving me to so many meetings during these years when I did not hold a Driver’s Licence.

Also a shout out to Bruce Barnes who held the role of Editor of both Sonic Screwdriver and Supervoc during this period and to Catherine Simpson for overseeing the Club’s Writing Pool. I am grateful that there were so many members who were keen to accept roles and responsibilities within the club.

And a final thanks to Graham Jones; and to Geoff Allshorn, who presented me with the Austrek Constitution as a template for review and modification along the way to it becoming the Club’s own fit for purpose Constitution. It has presided over and therefore guaranteed the Club’s survival for over 40 years now. Here’s celebrating that the rule of law prevails!

CRITIQUE:

“The extraordinary thing is this: that the moment you make a story or create an image that finds favour with an audience, you’ve effectively lost it. It toddles off, the little bastard; it becomes the property of the fans. It’s they who create around it their own mythologies; who make sequels and prequels in their imagination; who point out the inconsistencies in your plotting. I can envisage no greater compliment. What more could a writer or a film maker ever ask, than that their fiction be embraced and become part of the dream-lives of people who it’s likely he’ll never meet?” ― Clive Barker, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser Vol. 1

What do you think humans can learn from the alien Doctor?

Whilst often touted as being alien in temperament, the Doctor displays a number of all-too-familiar human character traits, and this enables the audience to identify and engage with his character. The following is a listing of what I have observed as being his characteristics:

Adventurist
Anti-authoritarian
Challenging
Compassionate
Curious
Disruptive
Egocentric
Inclusive
Individualistic
Intrusive
Judgemental
Leader
Manipulator
Nonconformist
Persuader
Questioning
Restless
Subversive

All of the above characteristics have manifested themselves to varying degrees throughout his various lives, including acquired wisdom borne from hard-won experiences spanning several centuries on our time scale, hence his sometimes challenging appraisal and methodology employed to deal with the seemingly endless number of crises he has found himself compelled to deal with.

The Doctor usually plays a central role in overcoming the myriad personifications of evil he encounters on his travels, However, he is not alone in doing so, as he travels with companions who strive to assist him overcoming each threat.

The franchise premise affords it tremendous latitude in its story telling. The time-and-space-travelling capability of the Tardis is the key to the series being able to present a seemingly infinite number of plot lines. For example, the final eight stories of the Hartnell era (Doctor #1) present:

  • The Massacre: August 1572 leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France;

  • The Ark: an “ark” spaceship carrying Earth’s surviving eco system to another planet some ten million years into the future;
  • The Celestial Toymaker: a powerful adversary enforces the playing of dangerous, potentially lethal games within a children’s fantasy landscape (whose character reappears as part of the Doctor’s sixtieth anniversary).

  • The Gunfighters: the deadly gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881;

  • The Savages: a so-called perfectly civilised society on an unnamed planet which eventually reveals itself to have two separate classes bound in mortal conflict;

  • The War Machines: a bid for world domination by a super-computer AI called WOTAN housed in the Post Office Tower in 1960s London;

  • The Smugglers: smuggling, betrayal and intrigue in seventeenth century Cornwall; and,

  • The Tenth Planet: a 1986 space tracking station at the South Pole becomes a base to defend Earth against alien attack from the Cybermen, the inhabitants of Earth’s long lost twin planet, Mondas.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

It has now been literally a generation since Doctor Who first appeared on television. Has he evolved over the years?

Today, he is a complex character with precious little residual mystery and now carrying an inordinate amount of personal baggage. A challenge for its long line of show runners, particularly in the modern era, has been to uphold his sense of mystery when the forces of exposition have been relentlessly at work over the past half century to have his identity thoroughly exposed. By and large, they have failed to do so and indeed have progressively striven to unravel him.

I believe, after having viewed the series for over half a century, that it has long since reached the point where its title, “Doctor Who”, is no longer applicable. I consider its 1960s era unique, a self-enclosed time capsule having sustained its titular remit up until Patrick Troughton’s final story, The War Games in 1969, where the Doctor’s identity as a fugitive Time Lord was revealed. Moving into Jon Pertwee’s era of the 1970s, the show and indeed the Doctor himself was never the same again.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Along the way the Doctor has ceased to be an anonymous adventurer and has now become universal saviour. His character’s appeal has sustained itself as the show’s audience has matured in its understanding of him over the years. He has morphed from being a demonstrably self-centred traveller at the beginning of William Hartnell’s era into one with a declared moral code by the advent of Troughton and has long since cemented himself as an agent for justice with a galactic sized reputation. He has become a traveller who challenges the status quo whenever and wherever he considers it needs challenging.

His evolved sense of goodness, measured in an apparent lack of self-centredness, contrasts with evil that demonstrates an inability/unwillingness to empathise with others.

The presentation of a number of historical, cultural, ecological, political and, more recently, gender identity and sexual orientation-related themes for examination and debate – sometimes quite heatedly within its demographically diverse fanbase – reflect the Doctor’s evolution.

So who exactly is the Doctor – an “Everyman” figure, or A Rebel With A Cause?

In challenging the status quo, he may appear to be either the protagonist or antagonist. If a story presents a sole villain or alien race determined to unleash evil, they may be considered the protagonists as their intent drives the plot forcing the Doctor to assume the position of antagonist who is determined to thwart them. It should be noted that the Doctor may also assume the role as protagonist as he becomes the primary figure leading a collective resistance against the forces of evil.

Three classic examples of the Doctor assuming dual protagonist/antagonist roles are presented within the following Troughton era stories:

Hobson and the Doctor – The Moonbase (Photo supplied by John Edwards Davies)

The Moonbase (1967)
The Cybermen (Protagonists) are surreptitiously invading a Moonbase which houses a device called the Gravitron which controls the weather on Earth and which they intend to take control of and use to destroy the Earth by severely disrupting its weather. They are infecting the Moonbase’s food supply and one by one the personnel are falling ill and ending up in the Moonbase’s hospital ward where they mysteriously disappear. The Moonbase commander, Hobson becomes increasingly suspicious of the Doctor and his companions and begins to believe they are the culprits.

Within The Moonbase (episode 2), there is the following exchange between Hobson and the Doctor and his companions in the hospital ward, where matters are coming to a head:

Hobson: “For the past two weeks a completely unknown disease has appeared in the base. People drop in their tracks and they develop this black pattern on their skin. Then some of the patients disappear, right? Well they can’t leave the base without wearing spacesuits and there are no spacesuits missing, so where are they?”
The Doctor: “I must say it does sound a little odd.”
Hobson: “More than a little. Well I do know one thing a new disease starts, people disappear and then you turn up !”
Polly: “And you think we did it !”
Ben: “Oh come off it, we haven’t done a thing !”
Hobson: “That’s as maybe. I don’t know who you are, what you are or where you came from, but you can get off the moon now !”
Ben: “Yeah well that suits me fine, the sooner the better !”
The Doctor: “No Ben ! We can’t go yet !”
Ben: “Well why not ? They don’t want us here !”
The Doctor: “Because there is something evil here and we must stay.”
Hobson: “Evil? Don’t be daft !”
The Doctor: “Evil is what I meant. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything that we believe in. They must be fought!”

The Doctor (Antagonist/Protagonist) Believes something other than a disease is at work and with Polly believing she has seen a Cybermen lurking in the hospital ward, seeks to establish whether the Cybermen are indeed involved. Hobson threatens to order them off the Moonbase. However, the Doctor resists and makes it clear in moral terms as to why they must stay. Once the Cybermen are revealed, the Doctor leads the Moonbase crew to fight off the Cybermen, finally using the Gravitron to blow the Cybermen and their spacecraft off the lunar surface.

Tobias Vaughn – The Invasion (Photo supplied by John Edwards Davies)

The Invasion (1968)
Tobias Vaughn (Protagonist) – Managing Director of International Electromatics, a company specialising in the production of revolutionary electronics is in league with the off-world Cybermen who are launching an invasion of Earth. Vaughn’s character is central to the story and indeed dominates the plot overshadowing the Cybermen themselves who are relegated to bit players. Vaughn’s goal is world control once the Cybermen take over and his aspiration defines the plot.

The Doctor (Antagonist/Protagonist) – Comes to realise Vaughn is evil and is obliged to take action against him with the assistance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart who is in charge of the British division of the recently formed UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Task-Force). The Doctor assumes the lead role (Protagonist) with Lethbridge-Stewart and his troops assuming major but nevertheless secondary roles.

Within The Invasion (episode 8) there is the following exchange between Vaughn and the Doctor, where Vaughn retaliates after the Cybermen regard him as having betrayed them and now consider him to be their enemy. In despair at his sudden and unexpected reversal of fortune, he turns to the Doctor:

Vaughn: “You still think you have a chance?”
The Doctor: “Yes! If you help us!”
Vaughn: “Help you? Why should I?”
The Doctor: “Well to save us! To save yourself!”
Vaughn: “And if I survive what future have I Doctor? What will the world do with me?”
The Doctor: “Oh for heaven’s sake stop thinking about yourself! Think of the millions of people on Earth who are about to die!”

His protagonist motivations are finally revealed:
Vaughn: “You think I’m mad? That all I want is power for its own sake? No! I had to have power! The world is weak, vulnerable, a mess of uncoordinated and impossible ideals! It needs a strong man! A single mind, a leader!”

And finally aligns himself with the Doctor:
Vaughn: “Right! I’ll help you to destroy them because I hate them! They…destroyed…my…dream.”

Ice Lord Slaar – The Seeds of Death (Photo supplied by John Edwards Davies)

The Seeds of Death (1969)
Martian Warlord Slaar (Protagonist) and fellow Ice Warriors invade a T-Mat base on the moon and commence misusing it as a relay station to send deadly oxygen absorbing seed pods to Earth in order to soften it up as a prelude to invasion. Slaar, as the commander orders the action taken by his troops and his dominating character defines the plot.

The Doctor (Antagonist/Protagonist) – Becomes involved in the crisis now enveloping the Earth because of the effect the breakdown in T-Mat control and the deadly effect the seed pods are having on Earth population and takes action against the invaders. The Doctor assumes the lead role (Protagonist) helping the humans in control of T-Mat on Earth to resist the Martians’ plans, those characters assuming major but nevertheless secondary roles.

Within The Seeds of Death, there is the following exchange between Slaar and the Doctor approaching the end of the story’s concluding (sixth) episode, where the entire Martian war fleet has been lured – thanks to the Doctor – into an annihilating close orbit around the Sun:

Slaar: “The heat of the sun will kill them! You have destroyed our entire fleet!”
The Doctor: “You tried to destroy an entire world.”

In the above examples and in many other stories, it is the villain/alien race/whoever which instigates proceedings and it is the Doctor who is reactive. Please consider, that the role of the protagonist may not necessarily be aligned to the values of righteousness, nor that the values of the antagonist may not be aligned to the values of evil as we understand evil.

The application of relativist values may lead to the conclusion that both the Cybermen and the Ice Warriors, as presented as protagonists, are only acting in self-actualisation of the fundamental instinct to survive. The Cybermen can only continue to exist if they self-perpetuate themselves through the cybernetic conversion of other suitable humanoid like races, whilst the Ice Warriors can only survive if they leave Mars which is a dead world and occupy another planet which is fertile and can ensure their survival.

The Doctor, anticipating the widespread death of humanity which is guaranteed to ensure if he does not intervene, is compelled to oppose their actions for what he evidently considers to be for the greater good.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

The franchise is now 60 years old. What has it achieved?

It has profoundly satisfied the appetites of these who enjoy fantasy based entertainment and may it continue to do so for many years to come.

It is absolutely timely to acknowledge that the series has provided employment to an enormous number of actors and production staff within the entertainment industry and of course, particularly within the BBC over the years and made famous, indeed immortalised a number of key players connected to the series in front or behind the camera.

These include the following people, who were involved in the series inception. Their names deserve to live on forever in the annals of British Television as an example that culture is a communal activity (both as creators and fans): Sydney Newman (Head of Drama); Donald Wilson (Head of Script/Serials Department); C.E. Webber (Staff Writer); Anthony Coburn (Writer); David Whitaker (Story Editor); Verity Lambert OBE (Inaugural Producer) and Waris Hussein (Director). Lest We Forget Terry Nation (who created the Daleks) and Raymond Cusick (prop designer). My profoundest thanks to all of them for their creativity, dedication and vision.

What do you think is the future for this Timelord?

The series finds itself at a bit of a crossroad. Its UK audience has declined in numbers in recent years thanks to the advent of the various multi-media platforms now in existence such streaming etc which have had a diluting effect on the numbers watching, however the BBC has now secured a global distribution deal with Disney.com involving its transmission outside of the UK, potentially guaranteeing it a vastly larger audience than it has previously enjoyed.

Ultimately it is the quality of its storylines which may well determine its future. It is now being produced in a world where there is phenomenal competition for audience share by a vast array of productions presented by the likes of Netflix, Prime etc. It now has to measure up to the bar set by these which are endowed with tremendous budgets.

Otherwise, the ability of the lead character to change appearance and for the supporting cast to be regularly replaced allows the series to undertake a reboot/refresh at will. Its creative drive is dependant on its ability to attract good writers and competent producer with vision. There have been times in the past where its core fanbase has formed the opinion that these qualities have been lacking to the series onscreen detriment.

I wish the future of Doctor Who well, recognising that the show is being produced for an audience that is largely of a younger generation to my aging self and to a now notable extent endowed with different entertainment values. The series quite often presents on screen at a hectic pace with hurried plot exposition and its predominantly single episode format precludes much in the way of incidental character development which was a strength of its original multi-episodic format.

I am saddened indeed unimpressed to learn that there are many youngsters today who absolutely will not watch black and white TV and therefore will not explore the B&W Hartnell and Troughton eras as they currently stand. I note that the colourisation of select stories from these eras may be afoot to entice this youthful audience to watch what many of us consider to be early classics.

To conclude, I have watched the series since its return in 2005 with a sense of mild detachment and I don’t imagine that this is going to change in the foreseeable future.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

“There must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.” – The First Doctor, The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

This material is the result of email interviews conducted with John Edwards Davies between November 2023 and January 2024.

Article updated on 14 January 2024 at author’s request to include further examples of television programs from the 1960s.

© 2024 Geoff Allshorn

The Challenging Enterprise of Discovery

In memory of Helena Binns
22 December 1941 – 18 September 2023

Helena with Apollo 16 astronaut John Young in Melbourne, November 1987 (photo from Helena’s collection).

Sometime around the mid-1980s, Helena Roberts (later Helena Binns) chatted to me conversationally about her involvement in the Space Association of Australia. She noted that she had recently suggested a slogan for their advertising flyers: THE CHALLENGING ENTERPRISE OF DISCOVERY (she got the inspiration for the slogan by combining the names of three NASA space shuttles). To me and to many of her friends, those themes within that slogan – challenge, enterprise and discovery – also embodied much of her life and efforts.

Helena at the microphone in Southern FM for the Space Show, Space Association of Australia, June 1991 (photo: Geoff Allshorn).

Learning to Look Up

In 2009, she wrote an autobiography that began:

“I was born Margaret Phyllis Duce, at Lilydale Hospital, 2 weeks after Pearl Harbour. My early years were spent with my family at my grandfather’s house on the outskirts of Healesville. When I was 8, we moved to East Warburton, where my father, with a gang of immigrant workmen, was building a bridge for the Country Roads Board. Later, when I started High School, we lived near and then in Alexandra.”

At the age of five or six, this country girl was introduced to science fiction through a visual medium (an illustrated book of Buck Rogers stories), becoming hooked on its fascinating attraction and its call for suspension of disbelief: “I knew that talking animals weren’t possible, at least in this world. I wasn’t sure about rocket ships and worlds other than our own, but it all looked so fascinating that I didn’t care whether it was real or not, I just wanted more of it.”

The Orion Nebula, an incomplete painting gifted to me by Kelvin Roberts in the 1990s.

This mixing of the visual and the intellectual, the excitement and the awe, would sustain Helena throughout her life – from her interest in astronomy (joining the Astronomical Society of Victoria at age 14) and science fiction, to her later passions for artwork and photography (as an interesting blend of these interests, science fiction local Dick (‘Ditmar’) Jenssen recalls taking Helena on a tour of the Meteorology Department of Melbourne University around 1990; she also became an unofficial photographic historian for the Space Association.

The Stars Beckon

Helena aspired towards academia, and she topped her class in primary and high school with a particular passion (she called it an obsession) with Maths and Science, especially Astronomy. Yet she later reported how this aspiration ended:

“At the end of Third Form (Year 9) before my 14th birthday, my scientific education came to a grinding halt. My country High School did not have a Science course in Fourth Form, only Agricultural Science. I begged to be allowed to study science by correspondence, but was refused. I was offered a teaching scholarship but my parents wouldn’t give permission for me to take it. (If I failed, they might have to pay back the money.)”

Helena with Darth Vader (David Prowse) at the Galactic Tours convention in Melbourne, March 1986 (photo by Kelvin Roberts, from Helena’s collection).

Despite her lack of opportunities in a post-war rural setting, she sought loftier inspiration. Over the years, Helena became something of a renaissance woman who explored many communities and philosophies, including media and literary SF fandom, a variety of science fictional and speculative fiction clubs and conventions (becoming a life member of Continuum in the early 2000s), the Melbourne Science Fiction Club (of which she became a life member in 2009), the Melbourne-based Star Trek club, Austrek, the aforementioned Space Association of Australia (to which she introduced me), and Tolkein-inspired artwork. Some mutual friends indicate that they knew her primarily though one or another of these activities, or through either of her husbands, but I felt privileged to know her through all of these avenues, bar one (Tolkein) – but even then, I note that much of her artwork features flying horses or mythic women/characters, with long-flowing manes or hair or apparel that flutter aeronautically behind them.

Helena and Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, Melbourne, circa 1990 (photo from Helena’s collection).

Melbourne Science Fiction Club

Co-founder Race Matthews reports that five young men, including Merv Binns, formed the core group that ultimately founded the Melbourne Science Fiction Group (later the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, or MSFC) on 9 May 1952. Nearly six years later, 16 year-old Margaret Duce visited the Club on 14 January 1958, initiating her own involvement and friendships that lasted a lifetime. She also began attending SF conventions, continuing this practice for decades. Meanwhile, she also pursued tertiary qualifications that did not lead to the artistic career she had hoped for.

MSFC 50th anniversary cake cutting in 2002: Dick Jenssen, Paul Ewins, Helena and Merv (photographer unknown, photo supplied by Bruce Gillespie)

Although Helena was made welcome within the MSFC, her active involvement apparently faltered somewhat over subsequent years as she diversified her involvement with other groups, leading Fancyclopaedia to suggest that she gafiated from fandom sometime in the 1960s and returned after marrying Merv in 1998. However, this assessment overlooks her heavy involvement with other forms of fandom during the intervening years. I met her sometime in the late 1970s through Star Trek fandom (where she created fan fiction, expository writing and artwork) and I saw her regularly at both literary and media SF conventions and space-related activities – clearly because she obviously enjoyed being involved in all these forms of fandom. Perhaps her involvement also shifted (in part at least) beyond literary SF because its fandom had traditionally been predominantly male-oriented, whereas media SF fandom was always more inclusive and encouraging of women during that same era.

Counterbalance

In 1965, Helena married Kelvin Roberts, a commercial artist who specialized in photographic retouching. He later accompanied her to MSCF nights when they showed movies. Kelvin was a big fan of adventure stories such as those of Hammond Innes and Alastair MacLean, and hadn’t read a lot of science fiction, but he appreciated its imaginative and innovative qualities, especially in movie form, and read a lot of the same books as Helena. He even assisted her in creating Star Trek artwork for one piece of fan fiction.

It was during her time with Kelvin that Helena felt the freedom to explore alternate philosophies, becoming something of what her niece Ana refers to as a ‘hippie’. In the early 1970s, she wrote to ‘maverick Georgian guru Gurdjieff’, asking for his sage advice about changing her name from Margaret to Helena. He replied that she should do what she liked – and she did.

Kelvin in his garden (photo from Helena’s collection).

Many of the friends who knew Kelvin will remember him with fondness and affection, recalling him as a gentle-natured and kind gentleman. One old friend, Greg Franklin, got to visit the couple regularly for dinners at their home in Albert Park, and he recalls them to be a perfect counterbalance for each other: Kelvin was dyslexic and gregarious, whereas Helena aspired to be academic but remained somewhat reserved. Like Greg, I remember visiting their home and seeing Kelvin’s bank of television sets, each one tuned to a different channel (in the days before streaming services) so he could skim the content of all channels simultaneously. His imagination enabled him, despite his dyslexia, to write and illustrate a children’s book, and he told me once how he had thought of the plot of a perfect bank robbery story, but he had decided never to write it down because it involved possible harm to innocent bystanders and he feared someone might copy the details in real life.

Kelvin died in 1991.

Photo Opportunity

Helena and R2D2 at the Galactic Tours convention in Melbourne, 1986 (photo by Kelvin Roberts, from Helena’s collection).

“I had a small talent for art as well, and wanted to study that too, but I looked forward to it more as a hobby or diversion, certainly not a practical way to earn a living.” – so observed Helena in 2009, explaining how her interest in artwork had been moderated by the harsh limitations within her life. And yet, armed with an Olympus film camera in the pre-digital age (and later with digital cameras kindly gifted to her by Eric Lindsay and Dick Jenssen), she became somewhat well-known as a dedicated photographer at community events. She and Kelvin became official photographers at the Aussiecon, Australia’s first ever World Science Convention in 1975. She attended many events and chronicled those times.

Helena (centre, middle row, wearing red jacket and Star Trek IDIC medallion) with friends at an Austrek reunion held on 19 June 2004 (from Geoff’s collection).

Early Austrek member Paul Murphy recalls Helena’s high-quality photography during production of the fan film, City on the Edge of the Yarra. Over the decades, she amassed photo albums and CDs full of photos that documented scores of people from literary and media science fiction communities; proud compilations of professional-quality photos documenting people in their prime, and clubs during the vibrant halcyon days before digital technology changed the nature of social interaction. I would suggest that the only modern Australian SF community photographer to rival Helena in scope is Cat Sparks, who recalls of Helena’s prodigious photography: “She and I used to share photos between each other of the various conventions we attended. She was a lovely lady and I will miss her.”

From Space to Space Age

Merv and Helena at Continuum 2009 (photo by Cat Sparks).

Merv Binns’ involvement with McGill’s Bookshop and the MSFC, and later with Space Age Books, reveal how significantly he had been in helping to establish Melbourne as a locus of science fiction. He is remembered by many thousands of people in Melbourne (and beyond) as the proprietor of the latter bookshop, which serviced literary and media science fiction communities. I once had the pleasure of telling him that, as a teenager, I had found visiting Space Age Books to be as magical as entering Oz or Hogwarts, and I know many others of my vintage who felt similarly. Merv had remained friends with Kelvin and Helena for decades, but after Kelvin’s death, Helena began to more seriously reconnect with Merv. She later wrote that Kelvin had, towards the end of his life, encouraged her to seek companionship with Merv and that subsequently: “Merv started inviting me to attend conventions with him, which helped me to remain in touch with the science fiction community. We were not yet a couple, although we had been friends for over 40 years.” They were married in 1998.

Helena and Merv at Continuum in 2009 (photo by Cat Sparks)

Helena’s increased involvement within literary SF fandom after that was undoubtedly due to Merv’s encouragement – and maybe also because she found that fandom to now be more inclusive of women. Together, she and Merv became regular attendees at a variety of conventions, and they dabbled together in creating personal fanzines. I was honoured to attend regular dinners with Helena and Merv (and a variety of their peers) at the Rosstown Hotel, Caulfield, sometimes celebrating their birthdays or other events. It was here that I got to chat most closely with Merv, while Helena looked on approvingly.

Meanwhile, Helena maintained her interest in the space program, regularly attending meetings of the Space Association until her failing health, or other factors, made such visits no longer feasible.

Helena and Kelvin (front – far right) at their home in Caulfield South hosting a BBQ for the Space Association of Australia on 16 December 1990 (photo: Geoff Allshorn).

I last spoke to Helena in 2020, when she rang me from the hospital to inform me that Merv had passed away, and we talked about how a funeral or memorial service would not be possible at that time due to COVID lockdowns. When I offered to help her in any way that the lockdowns allowed, she thanked me for the offer and said that she would be in touch. I never heard from her again, although her family was able to keep me informed when she went into a nursing home.

From Fringe to Focus

(photo: from Geoff Allshorn’s collection).

Despite a division between literary and SF media fandoms, Helena fitted effortlessly within both communities. I recall dressing in costume while attending a literary SF convention in 2004, and Helena welcomed me into the building with a humorous flourish by addressing me as my fictional persona from TV sci fi series UFO: “Hello, Commander Straker!” As a veteran Trekker, she later came to a meeting of the Star Trek club, Austrek, when I gave a talk on the club history, and she introduced herself to a new generation of Star Trek fans. Although she saw herself as being on the fringe of fandom, she actually was a quiet and diligent participant, observer and historian of this culture, using her connections within the locus of these activities to photograph and record the lives and times of her people. In doing so, she captured for posterity the youth, vitality and culture of allied communities during half a century of social and technological change. She recorded the images of friends and colleagues, many of whom are now departed from our midst. She became an archivist of culture at a particular moment in time and space, providing raw historical material for social historians and anthropological scholars. While history records the era as the dawn of the space age, Helena helped to record the lives and impact of space age culture and ideals upon ordinary people. In whatever way that twentieth- and early twenty-first century science fiction fandom will be remembered, Helena will have contributed significantly to that memory.

It is hoped that some of Helena’s science fiction photos will be published online through appropriate clubs and archival sources, so that her legacy can be preserved and shared.

The author acknowledges that some of this background information came from Helena’s autobiographical material.

Sources:

Anonymous, last updated 20 October 2023. ‘Helena Binns‘, Fanlore website.

Anonymous, last updated 29 September 2023. ‘Helena Binns‘, Fancyclopedia 3 website.

Helena Binns, 2009. ‘Helena on the fringe of fandom: Her authentic story‘, reprinted in Bruce Gillespie (ed.) *brg*132, October 2023, pp. 9 – 15; and here on this blog.

Leigh Edmonds, 2020. ‘A luminary of Australian science fiction’, in The Age, 18 April.

Bruce Gillespie, 2023. ‘Bruce Gillespie’s memories of Helena 1941- 2023’, in Bruce Gillespie (ed.), *brg*132, October, pp. 8 – 9.

Race Matthews, 1995. ‘Whirlaway to Thrilling Wonder Stories: Boyhood Reading in Wartime and Postwar Melbourne’, in The University of Melbourne Library Journal, Vol. 1, No. 5, Autumn/Winter, pp. 18 – 31.

With thanks:

Thanks to Helena’s sister, Barbara Staffieri, and her nieces: Ana Wines and Stephanie Precht.

Thanks also to Cat Sparks, Bruce Gillespie, Elaine Cochrane, Dick (‘Ditmar’) Jenssen, David and Jenny McKinlay, Greg Franklin, and Paul Murphy.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Helena on the Fringe of Fandom – The Authentic Story

“I believe that if a convention is worth attending, it’s worth photographing – and the same goes for any other special event. It’s good to have something to remember it by, and it’s even better to be able to share it with others.”

Helena in the Captain’s Chair at the Galactic Tours convention, Melbourne, March 1986 (from Helena’s collection).

by Helena Binns, 2009

I was born Margaret Phyllis Duce, at Lilydale Hospital, 2 weeks after Pearl Harbour. My early years were spent with my family at my grandfather’s house on the outskirts of Healesville. When I was 8, we moved to East Warburton, where my father, with a gang of immigrant workmen, was building a bridge for the Country Roads Board. Later, when I started High School, we lived near and then in Alexandra.

My introduction to science fiction came when I was very young, perhaps 5 or 6, when my uncle Dave (my dad’s brother) showed me an illustrated book of Buck Rogers stories. I was just at that age where the distinction between reality and fiction was still a little blurred. I knew that talking animals weren’t possible, at least in this world. I wasn’t sure about rocket ships and worlds other than our own, but it all looked so fascinating that I didn’t care whether it was real or not, I just wanted more of it.

I read my first actual science fiction story when I was 7, in 1949. It was “Mewhu’s Jet” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in a British SF magazine that Dave had left lying about. It was about a little alien boy who gets stranded on Earth (does that plot sound familiar? I wonder if Spielberg read the same story.) The little ET gets about with a jet-propelled backpack, hence the title. I was very taken with that story, and have remembered it ever since. (Even though I suspected that you couldn’t carry enough fuel in a little backpack to get very far.)

Authentic Science Fiction Monthly #57, May 1955.

Of the actual SF magazines my uncle had, some were British editions of American originals like Astounding (the precursor of Analog) and some were original British publications such as If, New Worlds and Authentic. Throughout my childhood, Uncle Dave was my only source of SF. Needless to say, I still hadn’t encountered any other person who shared my enthusiasm for science fiction. Then when I was 13 going on 14, I found in the readers’ letters column of one of my uncle’s magazines a missive from a young man named Richard Paris, from Wellington. (The magazine was Authentic Science Fiction Monthly No. 57, dated 15th May 1955.) Richard declared, “I am a young New Zealander who likes good science fiction. I like Authentic. I do not like American SF…Every month the number of SF mags in the shops is tremendous…But – as far as I know – there are no clubs, organisations, or gatherings of any sort. Is NZ dead, or just hollow? I am only fourteen, bit if no one is willing to start one, then I will. I want a penfriend (or a dozen) about my age preferably, interested in SF, Astronomy and Space Travel.” I was, of course, inspired to reply to his plea for penfriends, and was accepted as one of the “dozen or so”. I had never had a penfriend before, let alone one interested in science fiction.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

A few months after we started communicating, Richard wrote to say that he had dropped all of his SF penfriends except me. He had decided that it was time to put away childish things and devote all of his time and attention to the quest for enlightenment. (We had found that we had each independently stumbled upon the ideas of the maverick Georgian guru Gurdjieff, who believed in unifying the core elements of all spiritual beliefs, and linking them to the search for knowledge of the physical universe.) We continued to exchange letters, mostly about spiritual matters, for the next year or so. Then unexpectedly I received a letter from someone else in Wellington – an adult named Mervyn Barrett, who introduced himself as a friend of Richard. At first I was put off by this. Who was this interloper? I was a bit miffed that he should take it upon himself to butt into my correspondence with Richard and write to me without being asked. I wondered briefly if he was a child molester, and decided probably not, since he declared himself to be a science fiction fan and the two compulsions somehow didn’t seem to go together. He explained that he was one of a number of science fiction enthusiasts in Wellington. Richard and two other youngsters, Bruce Burn and John Morgan, who were at Wellington Tech with Richard, had got their photo in the paper along with the news that they were forming an SF club. It met as ‘The Wellington Science Fiction Circle’ in the basement of Richard’s house. (Later when Richard gafiated, his father arranged for the meetings to continue.) Mervyn said that he knew of a similar group of fans in Melbourne that I might like to contact. They called themselves the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. He gave me the address.

I certainly would like to, and did contact them by mail. Since I was only 15 and still living in Alexandra (about 140 km from Melbourne), there was little hope of my paying a visit to the Club. But then it turned out that the Club came to me, in the form of Ian Crozier, Editor of the Club’s fanzine Etherline, who I think had relatives or friends in or near Alexandra, and took time out from visiting them to drop in and welcome me to the Melbourne Science Fiction Club.

In the course of our conversation he discovered that I was a budding artist, and asked if I would like to do some drawings for Etherline. My first was published on the cover of Etherline No. 85, sometime in 1957. (Many issues of Etherline were undated, which creates no end of fun for the would-be archivist who has to trawl through the contents in search of hints as to the nearest likely publication date.)

The next was in No. 87, which actually did have a date on the cover, 8th August 1957. That was my drawing of Einstein against an astronomical background, dubbed ‘The Visionary’, presumably by the Editor. I told Ian that I liked science fiction but not fantasy – a preference that still holds, with one notable exception. Ian then proceeded to tell me about that exception. He had read the first volume of The Lord of the Rings and said that it was about a war between good and evil. I said that I didn’t really like war stories (though I did understand the concept of the struggle between good and evil, as taught in all major religions, and personified by Gurdjieff as “the struggle of the magicians”, by which he meant wizards, and there certainly were titanic battles of wizards good and evil in The Lord of the Rings.) When I later read (at the still impressionable age of 17) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I had that feeling I’d had when I first laid eyes on that old comic strip Buck Rogers book. “This is probably not real, but it should be.”

I had known since I was very young that that I would be useless in the material world and that the only thing I was fit for was to be an academic. I was intensely motivated to learn and teach, and besides I needed the security of a government job. I topped my class in every grade in primary and high school and had an obsession with maths and science, especially Astronomy. I had a small talent for art as well, and wanted to study that too, but I looked forward to it more as a hobby or diversion, certainly not a practical way to earn a living. At the end of Third Form (Year 9) before my 14th birthday, my scientific education came to a grinding halt. My country High School did not have a Science course in Fourth Form, only Agricultural Science. I begged to be allowed to study science by correspondence, but was refused. I was offered a teaching scholarship but my parents wouldn’t give permission for me to take it. (If I failed, they might have to pay back the money.)

I turned 16 at the end of Fifth Form in 1957 (my birthday is on the Summer Solstice, just before Christmas) and was sent to Melbourne to study Art at Melbourne Tech (a seedy old institute even in those days, it now goes under the grandiose title of The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). I was sent to live with my aunt (my father’s sister) and her family at Oak Park (where I never spotted a single oak). On the plateau opposite was the end of one of Essendon Airport’s runways. That might have been a problem for some. But I was pleased to be within the sight and sound of aircraft. I had dreamed about them since I was a child addicted to ‘Biggles’ books, but had rarely seen or heard them in the countryside (except for crop-dusters, of course).

I couldn’t wait for my first opportunity to visit the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. According to Etherline No. 94, (dated 23rd January 1958): “On January 14th, Margaret Duce of Alexandria visited the Club with a Friend.” I think the friend was probably my aunt or my cousin, (a girl a little older than me), as I would not have been allowed to go by myself on my first visit without having someone along to check out the Club to see if it was okay. I believe I went by myself on subsequent visits.

The Club members were all male, all older than I was, and some considerably older. They greeted us kindly, and made me feel welcome. Those that I remember from my early visits were Bob McCubbin, Tony Santos, Don Latimer, Keith McLelland, Dick Jenssen, and of course Merv Binns – although they could not have all been present that first evening, since the chronicler was disappointed with the sparse attendance on the night. The venue was an upstairs room, I think in the Saint James Building in Little Collins Street, Melbourne.

Following closely after my first visit to the Club was my first science fiction convention – Melcon, at the Richmond Town Hall, 5th April 1958 (probably the Easter weekend). The Con Report refers to it as ‘The Sixth Convention’ by which they must have meant the 6th Australian Natcon, since the first four were held in Sydney and the fifth was Melbourne’s first – Olympicon, in December 1956, the year of the Melbourne Olympic Games. I was very impressed, especially with the talk by Barry Clarke of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, on the canals of Mars. Since Astronomy was my major scientific interest, when I was 14 I had joined the Astronomical Society as a junior member (non-attending, of course, until I came to live in Melbourne). On the second day there was a barbecue organized by Jack Bristowe, then chairman of the Mountain Science Fiction Group, near the home of Les Ward at Upwey, but I wasn’t able to go. Melcon was also the first convention for John Foyster, who was only a few months older than I. Later John and his friend Chris Bennie befriended me (I suppose we were a sort of junior fans’ subgroup) and in subsequent years I was invited to small fannish gatherings at Chris Bennie’s home, not far from where I then lived in Ivanhoe with my mother and stepfather. John and Chris were guests at my 21st birthday party in 1962. As everyone knows, John was a prolific publisher of fanzines from a very early age. He used to send them to me and I learned a lot about the esoteric mysteries of fandom, including its jargon, from them. I was intrigued by the lively (and occasionally vitriolic) exchanges that could take place between the highly opinionated publishers of some of these journals. Sadly the Club zine Etherline ceased publication not long after its 100th issue. I felt privileged to have had my drawings on a few of its covers.

MSCF co-founders, including Merv Binns (back row, left). Photo supplied by Dick Jenssen (back row, right).

At the first Club meeting rooms I had visited, people sat at small tables, playing chess, which I thought was wonderful as I had taught myself chess from a book but had never had the opportunity to play. They let me play, and it was a really great experience for me. After St James the MSFC shifted venues, and for a while there was no regular meeting place. Then Merv obtained from his employers McGills Newsagency at a very reasonable rate, the use of a large upstairs area warehouse, located behind the shop in Somerset Place – a grandiose name for a back alley. It was a name that was to become familiar to fans for years to come. It was not a venue for the faint-hearted. Access was through a narrow doorway, up a steep narrow flight of disintegrating wooden steps, or by a creaking, halting ascent in Melbourne’s oldest elevator – the notorious hydraulic lift, the last remnant of a system that had once served the entire city’s freight elevators. It was an open-framed wooden structure that offered no reassurance whatsoever to the intimidated passenger. Having survived the lift or the stairs, and occasionally the apparition of a demented early arrival dropping from the ceiling of the lift to scare the wits out of the next passenger, the fan emerged into the clubrooms – more spacious than previous venues, with room for an actual library, and secure tenancy – for about a decade, as it turned out. A real estate agent would have called it a “renovator’s delight”, and although there was not a lot of actual renovating done, Merv and a few others set about making it more habitable. Tony Santos donated some furniture, including a large dining-room table, which was promptly appropriated for table tennis. No more chess! I was really disappointed, though I suppose it was not altogether a bad thing that a bunch of geeks were getting some exercise.

I braved the perils of the lift (there was a sort of nostalgia at riding in a genuine antique) and enjoyed attending the meetings whenever I could (despite the table tennis). The library was my only source of SF reading material until Keith McLelland started lending me books and magazine from his extensive collection. It was my first acquaintance with the American SF and fantasy magazines. I was particularly fond of ‘Astounding’ and its successor ‘Analog’, as I had a preference for science fiction that was (at least in part) actually science based. Keith earned his living as a technical artist for the Government Aircraft Factory, and in his spare time had produced highly detailed and decorative drawings for the Club’s zine Etherline and for Race Mathews’ Bacchanalia and others. He also painted, mostly watercolours, often of castles or other exotic locations, and created small sculptures. Our friendship ultimately almost led to marriage (even though he was an ‘older man’; I must have been in search of a ‘father figure’) but it didn’t work out. We remained friends, though, until he died in 1990. Keith was a conscientious chronicler of Club events and outings, and took numerous photographs, mostly before my time. They were all dissipated when he died with no close relatives to care.

In 1960 when I was 18, I finally met my Kiwi penfriend Mervyn Barrett (sadly never did meet his young friend Richard Paris, my first NZ penfriend). He was in Melbourne for a few days en route to somewhere else. Later he came back to Melbourne and lived here for a number of years. He became very much a part of the local science fiction scene. His friend from New Zealand Bruce Burn produced a fanzine, for which I did a couple of cover illustrations, drawn straight onto stencil. That was a whole new challenge for me, and one I hadn’t learned at art school. Though at art school I did learn how to do linocuts and print from them. I took the opportunity to do my first Tolkien inspired works, and made a linocut of Bilbo Baggins in Mirkwood surrounded by spiders, and one of the dragon Smaug on his mountain-top.

After Melcon in 1958, there wasn’t another convention in Melbourne until 1966, and Club membership dropped off, but a lot of interest in fandom was kept alive by the fanzine publishers. The ‘Three Johns (John Foyster, John Bangsund and John Baxter) and Leigh Edmonds were the best known but there were others. Meanwhile the Club was kept going (at times almost single-handedly) by Merv Binns. Along with Mervyn Barrett and Cedric Rowley, Merv started showing movies at the McGills warehouse clubroom, which lured a number of people back to the Club and attracted a whole bunch of new ones.

I spent my years at Melbourne Tech pining for Melbourne University, which was just up the road. I craved knowledge and intellectual challenge, and art school was not the place for either. Although I liked doing artwork, and would have appreciated some instruction in the technicalities of it, there was very little of that – no lessons on Anatomy or Perspective, just criticism of our stumbling attempts. I specialized in Illustration, hoping to be able to illustrate science fiction or fantasy books. My teacher was Harold Freedman, later appointed Victoria’s State Artist. He designed the grand murals at Spencer Street Station (now sadly gone), Eastern Hill Fire Station and Flemington Race Course. (If you’re going to have a mentor, it might as well be the best.)

From the moment I knew that I was going to have to study art instead of science, I dreaded the prospect of having to try to make a living from it. I was just not quite adept enough at it. I finished my Art diploma course at Melbourne Tech in 1961, and my worst fears were realized. I found it very difficult to get work. Although I got a few small assignments from publishers, the only job I could get was as a designer for a plastic sign factory (typography turned out to be my best subject at art school, though also the most boring one.) I was never paid more than minimum wage. I had only two other jobs, and lost them both through ill health. When I looked for freelance work, the local publishers told me that all of their illustration work was done interstate. The only assignments I could get were doing finished diagrams (based on authors’ scribbles) for maths books. The subject matter suited me, but it was a constant reminder that I had not been given the opportunity at school to continue my formal studies in maths and science. (And creating meticulous black on white diagrams for hours at a time exacerbated my migraines).

A sample of Kelvin’s photo retouching skills in the days before digital photography (from Helena’s collection).

In 1965, I married Kelvin Roberts (an even older man than Keith, and even more of a father figure), a commercial artist who specialized in photographic retouching. I did not go back to the Club for a while, then Kelvin accompanied me there when I told him they were showing movies. (Kelvin loved the movies almost as much as Merv does.) Some that we saw were quite memorable. For example, I had never seen ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T’ before, though Dick Jenssen, Lee Harding and Mervyn Barrett were really besotted with it, so I finally saw what all the fuss was about. And we both loved ‘Forbidden Planet’. Kelvin had always been a big fan of adventure stories such as those of Hammond Innes and Alastair MacLean. He hadn’t read a lot of science fiction, but he appreciated its imaginative and innovative qualities, especially in movie form, and read a lot of the books I had.

In 1966 there was a convention at the clubrooms, the first since 1958. I wished that I had a camera to record it, but sadly did not have one then or for many years after that. (Most of what was said about impoverished artists was true, especially in those days.) I had always wanted a camera, both as an artistic tool and as a documentary one. I bought one for Kelvin, but it was just a simple one and most of the time we couldn’t afford film or processing anyhow. A couple of my paintings (one inspired by Tolkien’s The Hobbit and a fantasy one with a medieval look about it) were sold at that convention and I have no pictures of those either. I wouldn’t even have any photos of my 21st birthday party if Mervyn Barrett hadn’t brought his camera. He has shared copies of those with me, along with his photos of my wedding to Kelvin, and numerous Melbourne MSFC and other fannish gatherings. Michael O’Brien from Tasmania also took photos of a number of Melbourne events, including the 1968 convention held at the MSFC and the 1970 one at the Capri Theatre in Murrumbeena.

I continued to attend every Melbourne convention I could, and in 1973 at the age of 31 I got my first camera (with money earned for my cartoon style illustrations for a book by Ian Sykes, an independent petroleum peddler, satirizing the scheming of the multinational moguls). I had wanted a camera all my life, and knew exactly what I wanted – a single-lens reflex that was not too heavy for me to hold. I compared the specifications of each brand before buying one, and settled on the Olympus OM-1, which served me well for the next 30 years. At about the same time I bought mine, Kelvin got a very good secondhand single lens reflex camera with automatic exposure and that suited him fine. It turned out that he enjoyed taking photos as much as I did, and was very good at it. He converted one room of our rented house in Albert Park into a darkroom (fortuitously it had an exhaust fan), then decided that he didn’t like developing and printing black and white photos all that much, though he liked seeing the results, so I finished up doing all of the developing and printing. Later I did colour as well, but we could never afford a machine to process the negatives or the prints, and doing it by hand is a very laborious process. (Each print has to be processed individually.) Breathing in the chemicals isn’t all that good for you either, even with an exhaust fan. Thus equipped, along with Kelvin I became a visual chronicler of conventions, attending all the Melbourne ones we could afford to. Kelvin enjoyed the conventions as well, and took quite a few photos. 1973 was also the year I changed my name, from Margaret to Helena. (It seemed like a good idea at the time). Merv has since pointed out that if I hadn’t, we would now both have the same initials. (I’m not sure if that would have been an advantage or not.)

Merv Binns in costume at Aussiecon, 1975 (photo by Helena). FANAC

The most interesting and exciting convention by far, of course, was Aussiecon 1975 – Melbourne’s and Australia’s first Worldcon. It opened with a dramatic audio-visual display – a photo montage with music, the kind of thing that present-day conventioneers probably take for granted, but it was very innovative way back then. I was surprised and pleased to see some of my Tolkien paintings featured amongst the avalanche of images on screen. Because my habit of photographing everything that moved (or didn’t) at conventions had been noticed, the Aussiecon Committee also asked me to be their official photographer. They even gave me a dozen or so rolls of film to do it with. Unfortunately they didn’t also provide me with a front-row seat to do it from. I was told to stand up at the back with the other photographers (of which there were quite a few, amateur and professional, most with longer lenses than mine). Consequently most of my Aussiecon One photos look as if they were taken through the wrong end of a telescope. These days I mostly manage to get in early and bag a front row seat, but back then I was not wise in the ways of the world and I (and my photos) suffered accordingly. Also the Aussiecon coffers didn’t stretch to subsidising the cost of developing and printing the photos. I managed to develop the negatives myself, but was not able to do a lot of prints.

Aussiecon also brought the opportunity to meet people from overseas and make new friends – among them an American, Jan Howard Finder, an enthusiastic Aussiephile who introduced himself as ‘The Wombat’. We also met Mr Sci-Fi himself, Forrest J Ackerman, who liked my Tolkien paintings which were on display at the very comprehensive Art Show. He gave me a bat brooch from the Dracula Society. (Awesome.) The only three Science Fiction inspired paintings that Kelvin ever did were on display also, and two of them won prizes. They were very professional, airbrushed and finely detailed. We asked Ben Bova if he would be interested in Kelvin’s artwork, but he said that they only used artists not too far removed from Analog’s headquarters in New York. Over the years since, including two more Melbourne Worldcons and a memorable trip to my only overseas convention, the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton, England. That trip was thanks to Kelvin having one client who would telephone him at all hours of the day or night to produce artwork for catalogues. Kelvin finished up charging them double for the inconvenience, even though he did not mind the odd hours all that much. He worked on ‘Ditmar time’, his hours of sleeping and waking getting later and later as if he were born on Mars with a 25-hour day, and kept himself awake with coffee and cigarettes. He gave up smoking in 1981, but in 1988 it caught up with him anyhow. He died of cancer in 1991.

After Kelvin died, Merv started inviting me to attend conventions with him, which helped me to remain in touch with the science fiction community. We were not yet a couple, although we had been friends for over 40 years. Merv had invited Kelvin and me to his and his father Ern’s birthday and New Year’s Eve Parties over the years, so Kelvin was quite well acquainted with him. Kelvin was always very intuitive, and when he knew that he had only a little while to live, he was concerned about me being left on my own and suggested that Merv might be a good companion for me. I said that was unlikely since we were just friends, but eventually his prediction came true. Merv and I married in 1988.

I have done my best to photograph every convention I’ve attended, but cost has always been a constraint – until the arrival of the digital age. It almost passed me by. I knew that a digital camera would solve the problem of having films developed and printed, but the initial cost was a major hurdle. Five years ago, Eric Lindsay gave us his old digital camera, and that opened up a whole new world of documentary excess. I could now take (almost) as many photos as I wanted, and proceeded to do so. For higher quality photos I continued to use my trusty old Olympus film camera, but couldn’t always get them all developed and printed. Besides, after 30 years of use, the poor old camera was beginning to wear out. Then Dick Jenssen gave me his new digital camera (it’s a long story) and bought an even newer one. Photographic nirvana had finally arrived. Thanks to Ditmar, I can now take quantities of photos of reasonable quality. Dick had also given us his old computer and monitor and taught me how to use the software to enhance and adapt photos. I can now edit photos and share them around without having to get them printed out first. This is really gratifying. I believe that if a convention is worth attending, it’s worth photographing – and the same goes for any other special event. It’s good to have something to remember it by, and it’s even better to be able to share it with others.

Of course, the other advantage of having the computer and knowing (up to a certain point) how to use it, had been that for the past ten years or so, Merv and I have been able to produce personal fanzines or newsletters containing book and movie reviews and accounts of our own life’s events in general, and Merv’s memories of the early days in particular. That is still in progress, and of course photographs are a big part of it. There have been big gaps in the production of these publications over the past few years, due to technical as well as health and financial problems, but we are still doing our best to get it all done while we can.

I am 67 now. Merv is 75. And we consider it a blessing (and something of a minor miracle) that so many of our old friends are still around, and still in touch. And we are grateful for it.

Helena

Written by Helena Binns in 2009 to commemorate her being granted life membership of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club (MSFC). Kindly supplied by Bruce Gillespie.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn. All rights are hereby returned to respective owners.

There Is No Plan(et) B

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” — Albert Einstein

Image by r1g00 from Pixabay

Sci fi and cli fi (climate fiction) need to help us prepare for the future.

Part of that future was foreshadowed over a century ago by Jules Verne, Mark Twain and others, who wrote about the dangers of unchecked human hubris and greed irrevocably damaging the environment. Over fifty years ago, movies like Silent Running and books like The Drowned World warned us of climate change and/or environmental catastrophe. These were early incarnations of what is now widely called cli fi, or climate fiction, which can be written or media-based.

Zoe Saylor points out that sci fi has the potential to both warn and inspire us about creating a better world for the future. As the cli fi movie Soylent Green warned us (no spoilers please), people can be both victims and the agents of change. Even Pokémon and NASA have warned us that climatic zombie apocalypses lie ahead, so we must prepare for trouble and make it double. Cli fi and science activism must combine to change the world — today and every day.

“In your time, humanity’s busy arguing over the washing up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming.” — Doctor Who, Orphan 55.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn