This story was originally printed in Missing Pieces (2001)
(It's intended to be capable of being read in 3 different orders, this version is the 'puzzle box' order it was originally printed in - intended to heighten the mystery of what's happening.)
The throne was huge. From it, the tips of his toes barely reached the floor, and the leather strapped sandals were cutting into his feet; but he knew that he must not let his mother down by squirming. This was an important moment; the climax of the battle of wills that he could see being played out before his young eyes.
He could no more look away than he could remove the heavy two-tiered crown that signified - so his mother had told him - the kingship of the upper and lower Niles. It would be over soon now, he hoped; the heat of the brilliant lights that flooded the throne room was burning him.
The bearded prophet was shouting his demands for the slaves, again and again. He was a giant of a man. Idly the boy wondered if he'd grow so straight and strong. Maybe if he ate all his greens as his mother insisted. He kept his eyes on the prophet as he cast his staff upon the floor. There was a flash of powdery smoke and a snake writhed on the ground. The boy stifled a smile - he had seen this trick before. It was time for the next trick.
He knew he should not look up. It wasn't right that he take his eyes off the prophet; but even so he could not resist a glance towards the roof. It was a glance of admiration. There crawling along a ledge seemingly faced with stone slabs was the ancient sorcerer Ammon-Ra. His long bones cast a gruesome shadow. In his hand he carried an iron staff. It was shiversome to watch him; he had the moves so well, so spider-like, so evil. He would bang his staff on the stones and send them crashing down on the Prophet. His intent was clear from his very stance.
It was, Alfie thought, the best acting he'd ever seen. He hoped he'd do as well when he grew up. Until then the part of the boy-King Tutmoses was the best role his mother had ever got him. It was the sensational children's character role of 1939! His name was going to be in lights - well his stage name anyway, his mother said Alfie Trousdale wasn't a good name for an actor. He let his bored King's gaze drop to the Prophet, and so he did not see the other man crawling just behind the Sorcerer reach out toward him.
He did however see the flash of light, and he heard the make-up girl scream from behind the cameras, and he saw the body of Ammon-Ra fall to the floor of the set, burning as it fell.
Inside the Ship: Act 1 Scene 1
Polly and Ben were arguing. Good naturedly enough and with only a modicum of teasing banter but there was no denying it was getting on the Doctor's erratic nerves. Since his change when his body had renewed itself with the help of the TARDIS he had been nervous around Ben. The young able-seaman had doubted the Doctor's identity to begin with, and in a sense maybe he had doubted it himself: no amount of theoretical knowledge could prepare the psyche for the shock of renewal. Polly had been kinder but even she could have no real conception of what had happened to him: neither of them could.
"Hey Doc," Ben shouted, "settle an argument?"
"Oh," the Doctor fidgeted as if he had been unexpectedly asked to shoot a mettlesome horse, "I don't know if I could do that. I mean I'm no authority." A quirk of his lips suggested he didn't believe himself for a moment.
Polly beamed sweetly, "But you must have an opinion?"
He beamed back. "Must I? I try not to get involved in local disputes, you know that!"
"No, bur really" Ben said, "Cliff Archer right? Was he better as Hornblower or Hamlet 'cause I say Horatio but Miss High Culture here holds out for the Prince of Denmark."
"Well," the Doctor paused. "I think we've established Ben, that you prefer his middle period: Devil Dogs of The Marines, Bedtime for Bingo, and that film you can't remember the name of, in which he plays a man who loses both legs in an accident.
Ben looked surprised - he hadn't thought the Doctor had been listening - and Polly winced at the return of a painful subject, but the Doctor didn't seem to notice. "But most serious film-buffs consider that his finest performance was as a child as Prince Tutmoses in Cecil B. De Mille's epic sampler of history The Days Of Our Lives."
"That black and white effort were he plays an Egyptian?" Ben snorted, "It's so slow."
Polly looked serious, "You know it's only just occurred to me but the Doctor's probably seen films that haven't even been made yet - in our time I mean."
Ben perked up, "Yeah that'd be interesting, come on Doc so what does Cliff get remembered for?"
The Doctor muttered something under his breath.
"Come again?" Ben said, but the Doctor was already busying himself setting co-ordinates. "Did you catch that Duchess?"
"I'm not sure. What sort of film has a character in, called something like O'Brian Ken O'Boyo?"
"Something Irish" Ben guessed. "Sort of Leprechaun flick probably; you know pots of gold."
1999: Act 3 Scene 3
The editing suite was a mess of gutted 1960s and 1930s cameras - the videocam tech that had been packed inside spilling out with the brutal insolence of a hernia. The Director put down his clipboard, and smirked at the Doctor.
"Nothing to say? I imagine the audacity of our masterpiece has struck you dumb! You might like to compliment me before I have you thrown off the lot." Polly entered. "And your make-up girl imposter too!"
The Doctor scowled. "Audacity! hardly - a simple bit of temporal trisection, like making a jug by origami. It might look pretty but it won't hold water and you know it!"
"We have three of the finest performances of the most popular film actors of his day within a single film with no expensive SFX or CGI". The Director grinned his Hollywood Cheshire Cat smile, teeth perfectly capped, in a surround of beard. "And by filming in the past we saved so much on expenses. Our accounts make the Blair Witch Project look like Heaven's Gate. We owe a tremendous debt to the late Professor Whi..."
"I don't care whose research your flimflam is misusing!" - the Doctor cried - interrupting him - by filming in the past you've disrupted your own history you orthodontic ninny!"
The Doctor pulled a tatty copy of the Radio Times Guide To Films On DVD (2003) out of his fur coat, and started to read...
2003: Inside the Ship : Act 3 Scene 1
"Stay in the Ship," The Doctor's voice was terse. Ben tried to stand up to him but there was something in the small man's eyes that admitted of no compromises. "I'll just be a moment, but it could be very dangerous, if we saw or heard too much."
Polly ran over to the consol from the chair where she had been sobbing, her mascara running onto her sleeve where she'd rested her arm on the little card table .
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"I'm going to buy a film guide, I won't be long." He paused and looked at Ben expectantly. "Well have you got any money?"
Later he cradled the thick book on his knee, reading aloud:
"Archer, Clifford : born Alfred Trousedale 1929. A somewhat undistinguished character actor whose childhood career floundered after the filming of Cecil B. De Mille's The Days Of Our Lives , an unfinished epic trawl through history in which he played Prince Tutmoses of Egypt. He would return to the film ironically in 1969 when a would-be remake cast him as Ishmael leader of the Egyptian slaves."
The Doctor snorted. "Ishmael, I suppose Pharoah's army was swallowed by a white whale".
Polly bit her lip. "Does it say anything about the death?"
"No Polly it does not. And that might mean we can prevent it."
Ben glared a the Doctor. "That's not the sort of thing you used to say. What about that sideshow affair you showed us when we started travelling with you. 'Hello I'm Troy McClure you might remember me from such safety films as So You've Altered History, and Butterflies On My Blue-suede Shoes.' "
"That was quite different, Ben."
"Ben," the Doctor said, slowly and patiently, "a man is dead".
Polly sniffed, "And we killed him."
The Doctor held a finger to his lips and gave a meaningful tilt of his head at Ben, to which Ben remained luckily oblivious. Polly subsided.
"Now Polly, we don't know that for certain, and besides if I'm right, there's a sense in which the death hasn't happened yet. And anything that hasn't happened yet can be prevented. Besides goodness knows who'd fill the film vacuum left by Alfred's unavailability," the Doctor continued, "suppose someone else starred in all his films. They might do anything with their popularity, even run for President. The whole political spectrum of 20th century Earth could be very different!"
"Oh sure," Ben scoffed, "an actor as President! Still if it matters so much to you Duchess maybe we should try something."
The Doctor set the controls for 1999, and noticeably, crossed his fingers.
1999: Act 3 Scene 2
The aging, the reclusive, the down-at-heel Clifford Archer was already rehearsing his self mockery as he opened the door of the squalid digs he shared with half the students in London, expecting to blink in the lens of a videocam.
Instead he found himself staring down into two quizzical brown eyes under a ridiculous out of date and over-tall hat. The hat immediately struck a chord; thirty odd years ago he'd known someone who wore a hat like that.
Odd, the tricks memory played, things from his childhood were coming into sharp focus these days, his middle years were a blur with the occasional close-up, and where he'd put the cat food last night he certainly didn't know. The bane of being seventy.
The man took off his hat, revealing a mop of hair that to Clifford's practised eyes looked very like a wig. The thought made Cliff wonder if his own was straight.
"The washing machine," the man said, "can I come in?".
"Did the landlord send you?" Cliff asked. He hadn't noticed that the shared communal washing machine that served his and the student's one-room 'flats' was broken. "Only it's not very convenient. I've got some people coming." He found himself embarrassed enough to try to explain even though it was none of the man's business. It was the hat mainly - he couldn't for the life of him remember where he'd seen it before, but he was sure he had.
"A film crew, actually," he said. "They're doing a documentary with reconstructions. On the Curse of The Days Of Our Lives - the film, you know."
The man looked at him as if he was mad. "Ah, no I'm afraid you misunderstood me. I don't know your landlord, but the cat food is in the washing machine and you must not make that documentary."
As it turned out the cat food was in the washing machine. Clifford shrugged: that explained the socks in the larder then. He was getting vaguer. His doctor's hadn't given him long: all the more reason to keep working - screw one last tenner out of this unforgiving wretched business - leave enough to get his daughter out of debt and pay the funeral expenses.
"How did you know?" he asked the stranger.
"Obvious place," the man remarked giving the household tabby a tentative pat. It hissed at him.
"I can't take your advice I'm afraid."
"I thought not. If you did it would have complicated things but Polly wanted me to try."
"Hang on!" Polly. There had been a make-up girl called that on the remake back in 1969 when he'd been playing the Hebrew rebel, thingummy-bob, the one based on Moses they couldn't call Moses for some legal reason. A makeup girl called Polly and a man with a great big hat. The same man? Impossible, the chap didn't look a day over...actually Clifford couldn't get to within a decade of the man's age. He had one of those born old faces that worked you over for leading parts but gave you the pick of character roles.
"Surely, we've met?" - Clifford found himself saying oh well he could only look stupid (and poor, and old, and undervalued). "Weren't you technical advisor on the remake?"
The man looked startled. "Oh now, not really possible is it? My er father, yes my father did some work on British films: old school technical work, painting backdrops on glass, all very specialised -always known as the Doctor."
Clifford's memory clicked into place. "Yes that was what he liked to be called. Bit of a poser really if you don't mind my saying so." He gave the man an appraising look. "He really stamped on your face didn't he. You could be his double." He set his face into his best scowl. "It must really have been a family thing. Wasn't his father in on the 1939 shoot?"
A look of panic passed over the stranger's face. Clifford felt a pang of compassion.
"Listen if their reputation is on the line I can't help that. Everyone on the set was absolved of blame at the time by the police. I'm not about to point any fingers. This is an artistic recreation for the South Bank Show, not bloody Watchdog.
"A precise recreation?"
Clifford sniffed, "well look at me! I'm hardly set up to play the romantic lead am I. I'll be taking the role of the elderly magician Ammon-Ra: the sorceror that Moses, well whatsisname, defeats in the turning staffs into snakes contest. So it'll be my second role."
"You third surely?"
"If you're referring to my performance as Prince Tutmoses in the 1939 original - I regard that as a mere cameo."
"It doesn't worry you then?"
"I'm not superstitious. Not every actor wets himself when someone says Macbeth you know."
"Even so wouldn't you call it odd. Two deaths in two attempts to film the same story, both of the same character, the one you're due to play now?"
"In a re-enactment of a scene not the whole film."
"Ah forgive me, but which scene exactly have the asked you to re-enact?"
Clifford bit his lip. "Get out".
He slammed the door behind the man - his heart pounding.
They both knew which scene he was being paid to re-enact.
Ammon-Ra's most important moment. The biggy. The death scene.
1939: Act 1 Scene 2
"You reckon we can just walk up and have a butchers, then?" Ben asked, as the Doctor locked the Tardis in the backlot.
Polly looked puzzled, and taking pity on her, Ben added, "Butcher's hook, look, Duchess."
"Yes, I don't see why not." the Doctor answered. "We only want an autograph, if anyone asks you can be an extra; Polly can be from make-up."
Polly executed a mock half ironic bow; and seemed to be considering demanding a starring role instead but let it pass.
"And you?" Ben asked. He'd started to feel the same respect for 'this' Doctor as he had for the old man he'd met the Day Wotan Went Mad, but it didn't feel right calling him sir, like he would have the old geezer.
"I shall say I am on the technical side."
1969: Act 2 Scene 1
"....wouldn't listen the thick-pated nincompoop," the Doctor grumbled as the TARDIS materialised on the backlot, again, thirty years later than its previous visit.
Ben looked puzzled, "but you said he wouldn't listen, that's why you didn't want to ask him."
"Well of course I knew he wouldn't listen," the Doctor spluttered, "If he'd listened we wouldn't have been in this hodgepodge of a dog's breakfast in the first place would we."
"I don't think we ought to go out there," Ben said setting himself up to block the Doctor's passage to the doors.
Polly put her hand on the able-seaman's arm - knowing he couldn't deny his Duchess anything. "Please Ben".
Ben shook his head, angrily, stubbornly, the same stubbornness that had made him deny his own eye when they had seen the Doctor change so recently from a white haired patrician of around 800 years of age into this dark haired scamp.
"What if we make it worse?"
The Doctor looked him in the face, "for once I don't think that's possible, do you? Pass me my hat there's a good fellow."
Cliff Archer strode out of make-up with, he was aware, a cheesy grin on his face, the image of the beautiful girl who'd put the finishings on lingering in his mind. Nice girl, gorgeous blonde hair. Posh woman to be doing such a menial job, might be worth asking out once the picture was in the can. She'd obviously been starstruck too.
A man in a tall hat, a tatty jacket and and frankly Chaplinesque trousers bounded onto the set, framing the empty air at the back between his hands. "Ah Cliff Archer," he cried, "I'm so pleased to meet you."
"You are?" Cliff edged away hoping he could get away with a simple autograph.
"You again, Doctor!" An older voice cut through the question as a figure robed in green, his face hidden within a carven mummy mask, stepped onto the dais that formed the central feature of the set.
Cliff recognised the costume from the 1939 production. It was a classy replica - the new film's designers had opted to pick up on the original designs. Cliff suspected it was to let them drop in background scenes from the original painted out of black and white with a single tone for mood. Art they called it: he called it cheapness. The mask was an art nouveau horror the faked winkles of the plastic bandages stretching the face into a distorted scream. He wondered for a moment what idiot would wear it replica or not, knowing the gruesome fate of the actor in the previous production. The mask had been burned right onto his face. As if by lightening.
He felt a momentary pang of guilt to realise he'd never bothered to learn the name of the actor who was electrocuted in 1939, still he could rectify that now by learning the name of this chap and giving him some encouragement. "So you are?" he asked getting as much heartiness into his tone as he could manage faced with that evil, near reptile face.
"Bloody Ammon Bloody Ra, who do you bloody think I am, the jolly green giant?" - the voice was old, cultured, and bitter. Cliff felt himself blushing at such language. Well damn the man, if that was his attitude he could just stay a nameless figure in a mask, for all Cliff cared.
The man in the hat rested his hand on Cliff's arm. "Do try to forgive him. It must be very hot in there and I'm not sure he can see out very well." He tapped a finger on the mask's glassy eyes.
"Do you mind" The Mask jerked away on Ammon-Ra's scrawny neck and his voice came out angry as a hornet. "I'm only in this iron-maiden of a thing for one scene. I don't need the sons of hasbeen technical advisors getting me trapped in it."
Cliff turned to the man in the hat. "Your father worked on the last film? I don't remember..."
"Oh, no reason you should," the man said quickly, "spent his whole time getting painted into a corner. I mean painting the corners".
The masked mummy, groaned, and Cliff realised the bitter old fool was laughing. "Vain git more like. Going on about how the film would end in tragedy. I wouldn't have been surprised if it turned out to have been his electrical work that fried my predecessor. Still he was proved right I suppose which was a bloody strange co-incidence what with it happening just like..."
"He predicted," the man in the hat finished, capping Ammon-Ra's sentence. The Mummy seemed to take that as the last straw. "Listen I have to do this, don't think you can get me off set by hanging about with poor quality look-a-likes either! I'm going through with it. And he stalked off.
Cliff whistled. "Bit of a chip on his shoulder! Did you father work on the 1939 film then? I played Prince Tutmoses you know - something of a break for me, not a normal child role you see. Had some meat to it. When the magician got struck by lightening and the film got shelved, I'm afraid my mum and me went to the dogs. Alcohol. Mother's ruin."
"Listen," the technical fellow said suddenly, "You could do much better than this film you know. You're a genius. You could get a better role at MGM tomorrow. Today probably if you told them to go hang."
Cliff choked back a laugh. "A genius? Hmm, you know what MGM offered me: a role with Bingo their best selling chimp. I almost took it too then this came along. My chance to put things right - make up for lost opportunities."
"It's very important not to live in the past Mr. Archer - human's aren't designed for it!"
Cliff looked at the little technical advisor with the big hat and snorted with laughter. "I'm sorry," he said,
"no offence man but look at us, this whole set looks like something out of the 1930s, and you look like the 1890s and your telling me not to live in the past?"
"Well appearances aren't everything," the Doctor frowned wrinkles pushing up his brows and mussing his Beatle-cut hair. He stopped as if clearing his throat before delivering a scripted line:
"I must warn you this film will end in tragedy".
Cliff chortled, "You are a card Doctor, just like your dad eh?"
"You just remember I said it. Now can you tell me where I can find your Director?"
1939: Act 1 Scene 3
Polly came out of the make-up tent at a full run straight into Ben's arms. She was almost hysterical.
"I've just done Cliff's make-up," she shouted, as if it was a crime.
"Calm down, calm down" Ben said, feeling her sobs heave against his body: "That was the idea wasn't it; see what the boy looked like, get a better idea of his Greatest Film?"
"No, no you don't understand this wasn't Prince Tutmoses."
"But that's his part isn't it? The Royal?"
"This was Ishmael, the rebel and he was thirty years too old. It wasn't a different actor it was him, again. Him as he will be. I've just put make-up on someone from thirty years in the future.
Ben didn't doubt her word. "Come on lets find the Doctor. He'll know what's going on.
1999: Act 3 Scene 4
"I'm ruined." The Director was slumped in his canvas-backed chair, his bearded face in his hands.
"Possibly," the Doctor conceded. "Ruining your own star's career isn't the brightest publicity move. He had the box office appeal of a brick after drinking himself stupid between your thirty years seperated takes. The only films he ever made were Italian westling movies. And it was your magnum opuses fault. Time trauma can do that."
The Director looked at the little man. There was something like kindness in his tone. A ruthful acceptance of human folly maybe. "You think there might be someway out?"
The girl from make-up nodded, picking up her business from the little man the Director noted, she'd have made a good actress herself.
"Couldn't you call off the shoot?", she said, "say your backers have pulled out? You don't want to kill a man do you?"
"No...no...I don't but how do I know that will happen, it hasn't yet." He wavered. People died all the time shooting films. There had been The Crow after all. And if he just thought of Cliff as a stunt man, well they were two-a-penny.
The Doctor waved his film guide, "and this though written has not yet been written. I got it from a bit of time caught up in the cat's cradle your lash-up has created in the continuum. Walk away, let it unravel. There's been too much harm. If you end it now, the filming in 1939 will peter out. Cliff's career will falter but by 1969 he'll have a..." He glanced at a dog-eared page, its edge turned down to mark the reference...'a pleasingly inoffensive, minor comedy with a chimp' awaiting him." He smiled at the girl. "Maybe not Hamlet, Polly, not yet, but a step away from immolation."
The Director rubbed his beard nervously, "If only I had something else to offer the studio."
The Doctor put his arm around his shoulder, "Tell me, have you ever considered making a film about the Titanic."
1999: Act 3 Scene 5
"That's it, shows over, get down from the gantry. We won't be needing you after all Ammon."
Clifford tensed in the mask: Not need him? After all these years? Not bloody need him? His old muscles ached but he was buzzing with adrenaline. He'd show them a performance!
He edged foward casting his shadow over the scene below. The bloody look-a-like playing Ishmael, his fatuous face a parody of Cliff's own at that age looked up at him. The man was shouting something: couldn't he stick to his bloody lines?
Clifford's hand shock as he raised the iron staff. He just had to strike it on the fake stones supported by the gantry: the FX boys would handle the flash as the accident was recreated.
Then he saw the other face looking up at him. The boy - Pharoah Tutmoses. It was like looking into a mirror at the far end of a dusty hall way, but reflecting the sun. The admiration in those eyes. The brighter memories of his childhood froze him, and Ben inching along the gantry behind, tackled him before he was within a yard of the exposed cable.
1939: Act 1 Scene 4
The boy perched on the throne was tiny, holding his legs stiff as a board so as not to swing them.
Naked enthusiasm in his darting eyes. The tyke. Cliff wished he'd had time to talk to him, swap memories, offer him some savlon or zambuc for his feet if those sandals hurt as much as his had thirty years before.
But everything was rush rush on this shoot; no rehearsals, just single run throughs with multiple cameras.
"Editing, my boy" the Director had said, "it's all in the editing. All in how you put the pieces together."
He banged his staff on the floor.
"Let my people go!"
Up above Mr Bloody Ammon Bloody Ra would be getting into position.
Just a little bit longer and the past wouldn't be closing in so much.
He cast down his staff and watched as the flash powder hide the substitution of the fake snake.
"Behold the power of the One True God!" His voice was still steady. Surely the cue would come anytime now.
And there was a clap like thunder.
And there was a familiar lightening.
And then he heard the make-up girl, the nervy one, scream from behind the cameras, and he saw the body of Ammon-Ra burning as it fell to the floor.
"Did you see?" Polly shouted as the Doctor dragged her away. "Behind him on the gallery? It was Ben, he pushed him!"
The sizzling sound had barely stopped.
The Doctor let go of her suddenly. "It can't have been. I sent him back to the TARDIS to get some of my equipment. It's too late now for that though. We have to get away before we get caught up in events."
"But he's dead," Polly said as though that was all that mattered.
"Dead and he should never have been here," the Doctor whispered. "You couldn't have known, Polly, but I've seen the man who died, unmasked, in the future. Those long limbs, that habit of moving at a half-hunch, that trick with the shoulders. Moves honed over a lifetime of acting. A dozen films carry those signature moves." He mopped his brow with a hankerchief. "We've just seen Clifford Archer die at least sixty years too soon."
"And this is the last one I intend to buy for some time!"
"Only one he's paid for," Ben muttered, attracting a dig in the ribs from Polly.
The Doctor settled down to read. "Hmm, Not to bad; missed some of the highs but got others. Oh no!"
Polly and Ben jumped. "What is it, Doctor?"
The Doctor was flipping frantically to another page of the newer film guide.
"Poor Alec Guiness, not his cup of tea at all. He must have hated it."
And try as they might they never did get the Doctor to explain that, and although Ben looked for the film guides later himself, he never found either version again.