Thursday, 27 June 2013

John Dorney Interview Extra


You have been responsible for script editing the third series of Lost Stories. Can you take us through what you go through with these unique stories before they are ready to be recorded?

I'm not sure I can. As you say, they're unique. Each and every single one presents a different problem, a different set of challenges.

The Elite, Hexagora, Guardians of Prophecy, The First Sontarans and the Rosemariners (plus all of the fourth series stories and the Lost Stories boxset) all started with written storylines. These have varied from about two and a half pages for the Elite to around twenty for Lords of the Red Planet. Children of Seth was lots of script extracts and storyline extracts in a rather complex jumble. Power Play (under the title of Meltdown) was, I believe half scripted. And Luxor was obviously a full script.

The next stage of the process is deciding on writers. If the original author is still with us and interested in doing the script, they do it. Otherwise we try and find someone we'll feel is a good match for the material and will have a certain affinity for that writer's style. Usually this is a gut thing, you can pretty much see who's right instantly. Marc Platt and Christopher Bailey seemed obvious, for example, and both me and David Richardson immediately went for Jonny Morris for Valley of Death. I knew Simon Guerrier would do an amazing job of The Mega, and thought the feminine ethos and magical realism of Queen of Time would be a perfect fit for Catherine Harvey. Sometimes you're up against busy  schedules, and sometimes there are a couple of people who'd do different but equally interesting passes on the material, so it's not always as cut and dried as that, but it's usually an easy process.

The next stage is much the same as with any regular release. The writer works up a storyline from the original breakdown, fixing the bits they don't feel work, and it goes to the BBC, then they script it. Each different writer will go about this a different way. I'm quite savage with the storylines I've got, pulling them apart, putting them back together in slightly different ways. Some other writers are more reverential. A lot of the time the writers rework their own original ideas. Donald Tosh's storyline was an interesting one - he'd reworked his original idea for a DWM article years before, which wasn't precisely similar to the one he sent us... but anything in one that didn't quite work, worked beautifully in the other and vice versa so we combined the two.

Sometimes there's been criticism that we don't necessarily stick to the precise letter of the original synopses. (I would emphasise that they're really not altered all that much, when this point comes up I think people over-estimate) Now, I can see why people might think that, but no writer I've ever met has ever written precisely what's in their original synopsis. You find problems and solutions as you actually write up the scripts. Had these been written back in the day, none of them would have exactly matched the storylines, so I think it's more authentic to do the same level of development as any good script editor would have done at the time. All of them are recognisably the same story, which I think is important (obvious exception - stories like The Destroyers or Macedon or Luxor where full scripts exist we leave the same, as they've gone through the development process already - most editorial decisions went to Nigel for the latter).

Do you try and make them as authentic as possible or is there the temptation to shift them towards the sort of storytelling Big Finish is doing nowadays?

Authenticity is key, but at the same time I don't want the emptiness of pastiche. My rule of thumb is that everything in the scripts must be something that could plausibly have appeared on screen if it had been made at the time. So this meant that with Foe from the Future, say, I spent ages trying to find the funniest looking and sounding car to name check in one sequence (well, second funniest as someone had already used Ford Prefect)... but one that would have been around at the time. I tried to avoid using any continuity that would have appeared afterwards (I'm sure someone referenced Sontarans in one of the stories predating Time Warrior at some point and I nixxed that), whilst at the same time trying to avoid anything that contradicts later episodes  - which meant loaning Cathie Harvey the Lance Parkin History so that none of the dates she used clashed with future events.

Sometimes this is easier than you think - having Tegan meet a Dalek didn't contradict Resurrection in any way, as no one at any point in that story bothers to ask what that metal creature is. Yes, maybe Tegan would say 'oh, no, not the Daleks again' and she doesn't... but that's no odder than her failure to say 'what the blazes is that?'

Now every now and then somebody will stop by and say 'oh, now I don't think this bit of dialogue is very period, they're trying to ape the new series' - I'm thinking in particular here of moments like the Doctor saying 'Hurt them and you'll be punished' in the Elite, or some people saying the fourth Doctor comes across a bit eleventh Doctor in Foe... if people feel that, they feel that, but it's wrong to suggest that it's a conscious intent to ape the new series, or even our own newer stuff. What feels authentic in the moment when you're writing  is very much a personal thing. Obviously, we're writing these scripts in the twenty first century, and you can't do that in a vacuum, you're a product of your time, but these lines go in because they feel right and true to the character. For every person who doesn't buy it as period, somebody else will come along and say 'no, that's totally period'.

Certainly with the Elite I wanted to make it feel absolutely like the eighties, so I watched as many Davison stories as possible. I dropped in as many Sawardisms as I could - random references to the previous story in the opening TARDIS scene. Pointless continuity reference (to, I was delighted, one of our other Lost Stories, the Rosemariners). Stemp gets killed off for no good reason when the plot's run out of things for her to do. And ending with somebody killing themselves in an act of self-sacrifice. And the sound effects and music really sell that period feel. Really love it!

Do you more often have a germ of an idea or a treatment or a full script to start with?

Almost always a full treatment. Luxor is the only exception, I think, maybe Power Play. Sometimes there isn't really enough for four episodes (I needed to flesh out The Elite quite a bit). Sometimes you have too much - two full storylines for Lords of the Red Planet, where I ultimately cherry picked the best bits of both. And sometimes frustratingly incomplete - a missing final episode for Foe from the Future.

Is it literally a case of splitting the material between the companions who are still with us or did you make certain decisions creatively to focus on the companions that you did?

It's largely a question of looking at who could have plausibly been in them at the time - usually a wide range given a lot of development time - and then making choices depending on who would be good for the material. Nyssa and Tegan for the Elite was an obvious opportunity - one who would be eligible and one who wouldn't. The Rosemariners storyline featured Victoria, but had it been made it would have featured Zoe, so we had a choice there and we went with the one we felt would help the story.

Can you tell of any stories that you were completely unaware of or ones that surprised you because they werent made?

I obviously knew about Luxor, which I think is a terrific script. Any where there was a DWM article (Rosemariners, Hexagora, Guardians of Prophecy) I knew. The others were largely unknown - it was never an area I'd gone into. Meltdown as it was doesn't get mentioned often, and there wasn't much detail about the Elite. Reading the original storyline of The First Sontarans was fab, loved that (though given the Two Doctors, it not getting made isn't a major surprise!). The huge swathe of Hayles storylines that we could cherry pick. The big excitement came from Seth - travelling down to Brighton with Marc and David to meet childhood hero and adult idol Chris Bailey to talk through these fabulous ideas.

In every case, I can sort of see why they didn't happen, but it's usually about clashing elements (First Sontarans with Two Doctors) or budget, or busy writers (Foe). It's never about quality of ideas - in every case this was a huge loss to us (hence 'Lost Stories') as the actual ideas were terrific.

Of the finished results do you have any favourites?

I think Jonny's done a brilliant job of Guardians of Prophecy. It feels so authentic and fun. I'm particularly proud of that because when David was looking for titles I suggested it. I'd got a bit obsessed with how fandom had seemed to forget it - it was the first missing storyline I'd become aware of after seeing Jonny Byrne talk about it at a Local Group meeting in the eighties or nineties. I think it was the first to get a synopsis in DWM. Though when I got the gig, it wasn't mentioned on any of the missing story websites. So I suggested it - and it was the quickest deal on any of them. Emailed David about it on Monday morning, sent photocopies through of the DWM article at lunch time, deal had been struck by the afternoon.

The First Sontarans is fabulous. Andrew hadn't done a full cast audio before, so there were quite a few notes on the first draft, but he learnt quickly and produced something amazing. I remember swinging by the studio for one day - getting the mad cross section of historical action and space-ship battles in the same day really emphasise the story's scope.

And, obviously, I love the Elite! I'm terribly proud of that, my first full length Who audio. (SPOILER PHOBES, LOOK AWAY NOW) The end of episode three twist was mine and I literally jumped around the house in excitement when I was allowed to do it. The thinking was that the Dalek was in the original storyline for a few lines at the end before getting killed quickly, and end of story. David had initially suggested introducing it at the end of part three, then suggest end of part two... which made me think 'hold on... what if I still only  have it in there for an episode?' Gave it a presence in episode two too to sweeten the deal, but by then it was the whole thematic point of the story - that we've forgotten what makes the Daleks scary - not the voice, not the armour, not the 'exterminate' but what they represent.

That was the twist I was keen to protect. I didn't really mind if people spot it's a Dalek. Some people think the cover gives it away, some people think the voice does. Others miss it completely. But a lot of people knew the storyline already so that wasn't really an issue. I begged not to publicise the Dalek, but that was so that people didn't buy it expecting a 'Dalek story'. And whilst it is a Dalek story, I suppose, it's a story about the Daleks and what they are... they're not really in it. If you've bought it for Dalek action and you get one Dalek that never leaves its room, never says exterminate, never kills anyone and is dead within one episode, you'll piss people off. If the Dalek is a bonus, then it's a nice surprise. So yep, love that one.

Can you tell us anything about the upcoming tales?

The first three are all Brian Hayles storylines. Richard Bignell provided us with a large selection of them - about a dozen I think, all published in his excellent fanzine Nothing at the End of the Lane, or in Red Planet's case, the Prison in Space script book - essential purchases. The final one is a Bill Strutton Pertwee tale called the Mega.

Not much to say other than I love them all, I think it's a really strong final season. Cathie's take on Queen of Time is beautiful and witty, much like Cathie herself. Matt's done a fab recreation of the period with The Dark Planet to the degree Maureen O'Brien couldn't believe she never made it for TV! One thing I'd learnt from writing Foe from the Future and watching six parters on TV is that they work best when you make them big and epic, and that's a very definite Hartnell trait. Huge journey's that justify the story length. Matt really ran with that and it has a similar feel to Macedon and Luxor. Simon's Mega is a great romp to finish the range, an infectiously joyous action movie as you'd expect from the Pertwee years, with just a hint of TV comic about it. Hugely enjoyable.

I've written Lords of the Red Planet. It's kind of a 'genesis of the Ice Warriors' but with a twist. And it is, again, an epic with a phenomenal cast. Michael Troughton as a benevolent scientist, Abigail Shaw as our villain, and Charlie Hayes as an egotistical princess (you couldn't be in the guest cast without a famous parent!). Nick's on Ice Warrior duties again and is wonderful doing some unusual variations on a theme. I think it'll be a lot of fun.

The Justice of Jalxar was highly anticipated because of the reunion between the fourth Doctor and Jago & Litefoot. Is it daunting to write something that fans have been waiting to experience for several decades?

With one exception I'll get to later, I never find any one story more pressure, more daunting than any other. I want every story to be brilliant (even if I don't necessarily achieve that) so they're all daunting in a way. With this particular script, maybe I'd have had pause if I'd stopped to think about it... but I didn't particularly want to waste time being daunted when I should just be getting on and writing the thing. By the time we got there I'd already written eight episodes for Tom and two hours or drama for Chris and Trevor, and they'd already had an adventure with Colin, so it didn't really feel like a big thing, I suppose. Certainly, I don't think a two parter can compete with the grandeur or Talons, to work they've got to be small stories, so I wanted a fun little romp that would allow room for the character interplay that would make the story memorable and was what we all wanted.

What was your goal when approaching this tale?

Same as with any script, I suppose, to write the best story I could. Something that didn't demean the memory of Talons but worked as a story in its own right and could work if you hadn't seen Talons, hadn't heard any of the Jago and Litefoot stories and so on. It's why it's set ten years after the regular audios, incidentally - I wanted to write a script where the dialogue could work had it been transmitted in the seventies, but also worked in a post Professor Dark world. I'm slightly amazed that people miss Litefoot querying the Doctor's appearance. It's definitely there, but it's deliberately brief because who wants to waste time doing continuity admin when there's a story to tell?

Who did you find it easier to write for Louise Jameson or Mary Tamm since they play such different characters?

Louise I was very used to, I'd been writing for her for over a year what with Jago and Litefoot - I realised, incidentally, that I've written more material for Louise as Leela than anyone else, TV series included. Nick's catching up rapidly, though!

Mary was therefore more of a challenge, but she seemed to click from the very first go.

I think I'm fortunate in that capturing the voices seems to come quite naturally to me. I think growing up watching these stories helps, the voices are in my head already if that doesn't sound too crazy. Sometimes these will need tweaks - I added a bit more psychoanalysis for Romana in draft two because David felt no-one had done that enough and it was a key factor - but by and large, as long as I can imagine the actor saying it, then it feels right.

What strengths does Romana bring to the series?

She's very good at puncturing the Doctor's pomposity. I also think they work well as a team - I've mentioned before that I love the Jamie/Zoe dynamic where they patronise each other, and there's something similar with the Doctor and Romana, they both think they're a bit better than the other and they need to keep them out of trouble. Leela's always learning, and whilst she can often see through the Doctor's bluster, Romana's the one where there's always a shifting power structure.

The cover is excellent do you have a favourite of all your releases?

Ooh. Now that's a question. Anything Alex does is wonderful, of course - I've a framed poster of Solitaire and my parents have framed copies of the Macedon covers I'm on. I suspect The Burning Prince is my favourite of his covers for my stuff, though these things are always apt to change. I'm excited to see what he comes up with for The Assassination Games, which I suspect will be one of his as he's resident on Counter-Measures. There's a lot of scope for that one, I think.

Love the Demons of the Red Lodge cover, though I'm only a quarter of that, and I adore Adrian Salmon's Dead Man's Switch cover (I bought the original illustration off him - that's getting framed too!). And I've only just seen Anthony Lamb's beautiful cover for The King of Sontar, full of drive and energy.

So most of them, I think is the answer!

Youre companion chronicle The Rocket Men was met with almost universal acclaim. Did you approach this as a story that finally had Ian say those out loud that some of us have been longing to hear for a long time?

I always try to look for an emotional hook, if I can, something to lead me into the story. I think character journeys are the most important element of story telling. I saw a play the other day which I found a little unsatisfying because whilst the plot ended somewhere different from where it started, all of the characters were effectively the same people. They'd not grown or changed in any way. That's what you need to make it stop being just a plot and become a story.

Having said that, the actual hook was the very last thing I thought of - though the moment I did, it unlocked the rest of it. I'd already decided I wanted to do rocket-men in the old fashioned republic serial style. And I knew from that that the cliffhanger had to be someone being thrown into mid-air to fall... For a long time, that was Ian, as it was his story. It was only later, when I thought 'what if it was Barbara', and the line 'I'll never let you fall again' came to mind that the whole thing clicked.
 
Was that your decision to bring their relationship out into the open?

It was. I emailed David to ask if we could do it, and we got the word back that the Sarah Jane adventures had confirmed their marriage, so I was fine to run with it.

How difficult was it to writer a script with the dramatic device of finishing and ending each scene with the same phrase?


Not particularly hard, from what I recall. I knew what the scenes were going to be, and then it was just a matter of tweaking the lines at one side of the break to reflect the other. Most of the time, this barely needed any work at all. I can't quite remember why I did that. Given that I'd set myself all manner of rods for my own back (present and past tense sections; the present sections being 'live' with only spoken dialogue by the actors we had, none for those we didn't... and reversing that in the past sections; having to hold back information for an entire episode) it seems baffling that I threw in another complication. I suspect it probably happened by accident in the early stages and I thought 'oh, why not!'

Do you have a favourite moment in this story?

The ends of the episodes, and the reveal in two. Howard Carter is one of my favourite sound designers and he's particularly fabulous at episode endings and he does it with both here - he does it with the end of parts five and six of Foe from the Future too - the build at the end of part one in particular is wonderful. I'd never been quite sure when I was writing if the cliffhanger was Barbara getting pushed out of the airlock or Ian's leap. It's baffling to me now that I ever considered the former. I think I wasn't sure if it made the twist obvious - scripting twists is one of the big difficulties of writing I think. You can never put yourself in the position of the audience. With the rest of the material you can always have a reasonable feel for where they'll emote, where they'll laugh... but not where they'll be surprised as you always know what's coming and can never be in a position of ignorance. You'll never know how much you can reveal without blowing the gaff. So when people bought into that cliffhanger and then bought into the rug pull, then I was delighted. It was a trick which could only work in a Companion Chronicle, and whilst I'd usually be wary of those as it can feel a shade tricksy, I'm very fond of that.

I've never quite understood when fans have said they don't understand why the story is told non-chronologically. Hell, one's even said that the device is dropped for the last five minutes of the story and the final scenes are told in a linear manner, which is demonstrably untrue, the final scene takes place at a point about four fifths in to the narrative. But the emotional impact of both those moment is entirely dependent on them not being in their chronological position. In episode one because you'd know what's really going on, and two because the most important dramatic highpoint of the story would be neutered by being followed with five minutes of story admin.

You must have been thrilled when you heard the finished result, especially William Russells passionate performance.

Of course. He's easily one of the best actors the series has ever employed and his voice is a thing of beauty. It's a privilege to have him speak your words, but frankly I'm thrilled when I hear him do anything, he's that good. He makes me forget I wrote it and I get caught up!

The Fourth Wall is one of my absolute favourites from the main range in the past couple of years. What can you tell me about the conception of this story?

Very little, actually, as I think I wrote up the initial proposal about a decade ago!  The idea came, I think, from being intrigued by the magical realism of the Woody Allen film 'The Purple Rose of Cairo', a film I've still never watched all the way through, oddly. I initially came up with the idea when Big Finish did an open submission window about 2003, and it was rejected! And with good reason - whilst a lot of the eventual plot was there, it wasn't really right yet, there were structural flaws. I think, given that I'd quite a good writers cv at the time, I'd rather arrogantly assumed they'd take it on anyway and give me development time. One of the major ones I remember was that after the half-way point, when the villain broke out, the story never really grew. It just became 'run away from the monsters'. The fix on that was the quest for multiple Lord Krarns. I needed to raise the stakes.

Anyway I decided to follow the oft-repeated writer advice of never throw away a good idea. I reworked it for the Tomorrow People, submitted it to Nigel, he invited me to pitch stuff for Sapphire and Steel, and eventually I got onto the Who stuff. After about six or seven years! When Alan was looking for Flip ideas, I ended up submitting two ideas we'd already discussed... then threw in the Fourth Wall notion almost on a whim as I still liked it. And that was the one that fired Alan and Nick up.

However, there were ideas in the other two stories they liked as well - the Porcians in one and the fake out companion death in the other - and asked if I could squeeze those bits into mine as well. I thought writing Flip out would be tricky, but it went surprisingly well. I figured out how to revive her in about ten minutes of swimming (my usual thinking time!), and tweaked the plot slightly. Originally, Doctor Shepherd died at the end of part two, but in the new version she fulfilled Flip's role from the original draft.  This meant I had to lose a slight subplot of a faint romance developing between Flip and Laser - there just wasn't enough time to build the bond.

The Porcians were tricky. I was also a little concerned that including them in an already quite high-concept and crazy storyline might knock it too far into wacky (I think you can usually get away with about one 'funny' thing in a story before it starts to totter), so it was something I had to tread carefully with... and I know that for some people it's all a little too demented, but I think the story eventually worked better with them and they did illustrate the story's point and theme rather effectively. Oddly, they came even further back in the process, the initial idea turned up in an incomplete fanzine storyline for an old Local Group mag we called 'The Hourly Press', twenty years. The final cliffhanger was of their first appearance and I never got to explain who they were. The oddest thing is that they seem so much more relevant now in our age of talent and reality shows than they were then!

Was it daunting being promoted to the main range?

I think I just thought 'about time'! No, that's a joke - I think I'd written enough at that time, and had high-profile stuff like new Tom Baker audios coming up, that it was just another job. They're not really all that different. It's one of the reasons I tend to prefer talking about it as 'the monthly' rather than 'main' range, it's not more important just because it was the first series we released. They're all important, I don't see it as a promotion.

How did you find it writing for Sixie and was there a great deal of collaboration regarding Flip considering this was her first trilogy of adventures?

Sixie surprised me - Colin's so witty and loquacious that I didn't really notice his Doctor isn't much of a joker. The sixth Doctor's gags are deliberately big and bad puns, that sort of thing, and a lot of the humour comes from the outside with him (like the 'quarry' gag in part one - the laugh is in the pause rather than in what he says), and sometimes it's laughing at him and his pomposity. I think I really noticed this as I'd just come off writing the fourth Doctor, where you practically can't shut him up for jokes, where the problem is keeping him serious.

Flip was a joy to write. Me, Jonny and William all emailed back and forth and swapped drafts to get a sense of her. Jonny gave us a few clear ideas about where he was coming from with her - mainly the notion that she's brave and selfless to the point of being foolhardy, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff and only noticing half-way across. But the character was fairly clear from Lisa's performance in Crimes anyway, both her and the character were small but perfectly formed, so it didn't feel a massive hassle writing her.

Are the (delightful) Porcians going to get another airing?

We talked about it at the recording and it's a possibility. I'd quite like to bring them back at some point, certainly, but it would have to be the right story. They're a little tricky to write as actual antagonists, you see. But I've ideas of what I could do with them, a few gags already written and a title in mind. We'll see. You can't tell - I'd never have guessed the Rocket Men were going to become recurring villains, but that happened!

Can you discuss a little more the intriguing idea about the responsibility of writers towards their characters that you explored in this adventure?

I remember being quite struck by a Lawrence Miles comment in an interview where he said he didn't kill people off willy-nilly because he didn't want to be killed at the random caprice of some heavenly script-writer. That was developed when I saw the film Sudden Death - a surprisingly not terrible Jean Claude Van Damme film, with a slightly unpleasant attitude to death. I tried to understand why I felt that I could take the death in Die Hard, but this film made me struggle. I'm still not entirely sure, but there's a sense with the former that it takes care to show the impact and effect of every murder. When a good character dies, it has consequences, people are shocked and horrified (if there are no witnesses other than us an audience, it's done with brutality so we don't get kicks from it).  And they have reasons to be there - they serve to illustrate a point. There are a couple I can remember in SD where people are killed in a mean-spirited manner, but it sort of felt like it was supposed to look cool. I thought the makers were slightly siding with the killer, gleefully murdering innocents.

You're writing action/adventure drama, so people are going to die, but ideally, if you've written your story well enough, the audience should feel pain when the characters die. You should feel pain as you write them dying. And the characters in the stories should know this is a horrible thing. These should be real people, not cannon fodder.

Of course - I'm a total hypocrite. I'm one of the most gleeful mass killers in Big Finish - off the top of my head The Elite, The Foe from the Future, the Fourth Wall, the Burning Prince, Echoes of Grey... yep, all massacres. But I try to keep them horrible and shocking. Because that's what murder is.

The Wrath of the Iceni was one of the most vivid adventures of the first season of 4DAs. How much about Boudica did you already know about and how much research did this story entail?

I knew the rough outline of her story, the bare bones. Childhood memories of Tony Robinson narrating her history. But really, very little - which was odd as at the time of writing it I was living not too far from her original home and a model Iceni village.

So once I'd got the intial idea, I needed to work it up into a storyline and that meant a two pronged approach. I initially read a children's book summarising her history to get a broad overview so I'd be able to figure out the storyline (a trick I learned when doing a-levels - they're thoroughly researched, and give you all the detail you need as quickly as possible) - then when writing the script I ploughed through an excellent academic text book to get it in more broad depth.

The main thing I realised when reading, the main thing I discovered, was that I thought she was utterly horrible. It's important to bear in mind that the only sources we have for her are Roman texts, sometimes written with a particular political point of view to impart, so they're not necessarily unbiased... but they're not terribly flattering to the Romans either (they're where we get the raped daughters from, after all) and they're the only source we have so we can't just imagine a bowdlerised version and guess she was nicer. The more I read up on her the more shocked I was that this icon of England and feminism was an awful example of both. Yes, she was mistreated, very badly, but she was a willing collaborator until it went bad for her, and then gleefully massacred women, children, the aged and the infirm. Not someone to be celebrated in my view, which is why she is the closest the story has to a villain.

Was it a mission statement to bring together two strong female characters (Leela and Boudica) and contrast their approaches to war?

Not exactly. The concept just happened. As I've said before, the brief was 'romans in Britain' and I woke up that night, though 'Leela meets Boudica', then thought - 'yeah, that's it' and went to sleep again.

From that point on, the arc of the story is relatively clear. Leela meets Boudica, becomes enamoured with her, decides to go... then changes her mind and rejoins the Doctor. It was just a question of finding the reason for that, and my increasing dislike of the real historical figure supplied me with that reason.

If I made a mistake in the scripting, I think it was giving the Doctor lines about how he isn't able to change history, because I think people then start viewing it as being a 'companion learns they can't change history' story a la The Aztecs and see the rest of that story through that filter when it isn't that at all, leaving them feeling a bit 'it's been done'. I've seen that turn up a few times, and I think that's a total misunderstanding of the piece. She certainly doesn't learn that, and it barely turns up as a notion in episode two, but the idea's already been planted. The important arc of the story is Leela is swayed by Boudica... but then what she learns is that not all fights are just. She leaves Boudica because she learns she's not noble or wise or good... not because of notions of 'history', which is an esoteric point borne out of convenience for the show rather than being based on logic. The story is about how our idols often have feet of clay, and how acts that seem noble initially can be anything but - not anything like 'you can't change history'. To convey this properly, the Doctor's chief objection should probably have been 'don't listen to her, she's not very nice'... but that would have rather given away where it was going and is harder for Leela to ignore (she wouldn't know why not, given the context, any more than I do!). And in the context it's probably something the Doctor would say... so actually, maybe it isn't a mistake as such, it's the right choice with unfortunate consequences!

The only conscious choice was to push for strong female characters - the first draft was called 'The Women of the Iceni' to emphasise this, but that wasn't seventies Who enough. This was largely in response to the appalling treatment of female characters in the period. It's worth mentioning that we've a story coming up soon, not by me, where the entire guest cast are female - not sure that's ever happened before.

How demanding was it trying to capture Leelas voice on audio?

Pretty easy, much as with Romana. I think I struggled a bit in the initial drafts of Swan Song, needed to make her less technological. But once you've got the tone, it's a doddle. I'm so used to her now, I don't really have to think about her lines any more.

The Burning Prince is practically told in real time, buzzing with energy and excitement. Was it difficult to try and keep that sort of momentum and impetus going throughout an hour and half tale?

Yeah, it is quite pacey, isn't it? I was very tempted to change the title when I was writing it to one word - 'Run'. I doubt I'd have been allowed that though! I think I had to persuade Alan to let me go over the word count because I was certain the whole thing was going to have to be played at such a breathless lick that the scripts would have to be a little longer than usual to come in on time.

Was it difficult to write? Not really, you just try to keep that energy whilst you're writing. The big action sequences I tended to write quite breathlessly, driving the writing through, doing  the scripting in one go, trying to reflect the actual material. The quieter moments - and there are surprisingly plenty for all the talk of its speed - I took at a more relaxed pace.

Is it easier to write the first part of a trilogy of tales (setting up) or to wrap everything up?

When Alan and I talked through the ideas for the trilogy, it wasn't set in stone which one I was going to write. It tends to get talked of as the 'Drashani Trilogy' but that's misleading as they're barely mentioned in the Shadow Heart. The brief was a trilogy about the birth and development of a villain. When I finally nailed down what I though the character could be, story one was so detailed that it was obviously going to be mine. It also gave a reasonable framework for story two... but I didn't have a massive idea of how to finish it off.  So I think the finale is tougher. Had I written story two as well, I suspect I'd have got more of a sense of where it could go for a third script, but in the original discussion I think the furthest I'd got was vaguely along the lines of 'A History of Violence'.

I'd did slightly regret not being able to do more than the first, if I'm honest. There's a couple of ideas I'd had that I thought would have been interesting that don't really turn up - I always felt the key dramatic arc was Kylo spending thirty odd years on his own on an alien planet, hungering for revenge, living for revenge... and when he finally leaves to enact his vengeance, he can't actually get it as the woman who hurt him has been dead all that while (and the Empire is ruled by someone who looks exactly the same) and that his vengeance therefore becomes wild and unfocused. The moment he finds out Aliona is dead must be devastating... but we never see it. It's already happened by the time we meet him again, which I think is a missed opportunity. And, frankly, I wouldn't have included the post-credits scene for The Burning Prince, which rather took the wind out of The Acheron Pulse's twist to me. But with anything you create in a shared universe, sometimes you have to let it go!

Was it easy to find companion replacements in this story and is it refreshing to write for the Doctor unencumbered with companions?

I didn't really think in terms of companion replacements. I'm not sure they're vital to telling Doctor Who stories, I'd argue that none of the Kylo trilogy really have companion replacements as such. If your story features a character who's a natural fit for that sort of role (like Nicola Walker's fab Liv Chenka in Robophobia) then go with that, but there's a certain freedom you gain without having companions, a different type of storytelling you can go for.

As an example, when I was writing this I was aware I'd made life difficult for Ken because there's a long, half-hour action sequence from the middle of episode one to the middle of episode two - and for the most part, because of the way the story is structured, the entire cast are all present throughout. And there were seven actors, which is one more actor than we have booths for in the studio. So Alan Barnes suggested a way of splitting the cast up, Kylo getting sent off in an escape shuttle with his own few cast members, the rest in the crashing ship, the way we'd do it with a companion. I was kind of against this as I thought you can tell a different type of story with only the Doctor, more focused, and we should try and embrace that (also it did rather mean that the Doctor wouldn't really get much of a chance to actually meet Kylo, which would neuter the rest of the trilogy in my eyes). So Ken just had to suffer.

Having said all that, Shira in the story is clearly a decoy based on the idea of the substitute companion. I'm quite proud of that feint, and the first episode in particular. Really chuffed that it was released on its own as a freebie because I love the build of the second half.

This trilogy received something of a mixed response with much of the praise being focused on your tale is there something about space opera tales that turns people off?

Well, I don't think it's been 100% love for The Burning Prince, and I think The Shadow Heart doesn't come out too badly with fans! Jonny's a brilliant, brilliant writer and he utterly nailed that, a really tough brief and he pulls it off whilst throwing in some wonderful structural innovation. I think Rick had a tough gig with Acheron Pulse - he had to do the most trad one, and that's tough.

I do think that Doctor Who fans don't always like sci-fi. I'm not totally sure that I do! I think Doctor Who is often mistaken for sci-fi, when it's more a science fantasy thing. And I'd say the more hard edged stuff this story represents isn't a natural fit for me. Nick can do this sort of stuff brilliantly in his sleep, whereas I... I think my style is more 'scientific romance'. Not in the sense of it literally including romance, but that it's a little more fanciful and playful and light. Despite my blood-thirsty tendency to massacre everyone.

And yep, space opera in particular can be a turn off. All those silly sounding place names and bizarre back stories its hard to give a toss about (who would ever think you could buy a space-faring hero called Skywalker, and a maverick called Solo? I always thought it was odd that Star Wars fans complained about the prequel titles sounding naff... all the Star Wars titles are the same style, the only difference is you didn't grow up getting used to the old ones). Jonny once said he had a chip shop test for stories - how did they affect him going down the road to buy a bag of chips? You need to connect to the stories somehow - it's why so many Doctor Who stories (Pirate Planet in particular) link them to Earth in some, often rather arbitrary, way. To make the audience care.

Therefore in an otherworldy story, you're already against it, so you have to find humanity in the aliens. They don't have to look or be human for me to connect with them if I understand them, if I can empathise with them. And I suspect that's another problem with the trilogy, some people don't really 'get' Kylo. If you have an unpleasant character in a villain role, people are willing to buy that, but I think the fact he doesn't really fulfil that sort of function in the Burning Prince wrong-foots people. Within the context of this single story, he fills a role that in any other script would be taken by a likeable, sympathetic figure. They think they're supposed to like him, or feel sympathy for him (which they're not, really) and seem to resent the fact that they don't. I've never really bought the Marvel comics notion that someone can turn from totally good to totally evil over-night a la Doctor Octopus, etc, I think they have to have the potential for being bad before that, so he's spoilt, petulant, quick tempered and a murderer even before he's an actual full-blown villain.  He doesn't deserve what he gets, because no-one does, but disliking him for being deliberately dislikeable seems perverse. I'm happy that he's not a cliche.

Tom Baker couldnt have asked for a better kick start to his Big Finish career than The Foe from the Future, after listening to that critically acclaimed tale people were chomping at the bit for more.

I think it's probably my favourite script. It does everything I want it to do, and the production pretty much backs everything up. I tried to break up my initial listen into episodes - then just gave in and did the last four in one go... then started again straight away. Hopefully this doesn't sound too arrogant - I love some of my stories, hate others - but I'm really happy with that one.

Was this a collaboration between Robert Banks Stewart and yourself or were you given the bare bones of the story and tasked with fleshing it out with character and incident?

Robert felt I should have a free hand to do what I wanted with it, so it was largely a question of me working up his 1976 synopsis. I did get a random email from him one day where he was lovely about it, quite out of the blue, which was obviously rather special!

The synopsis is one of the few that is, word for word, in the public domain as it was published in the back of the Adrian Rigelsford Hinchcliffe years book. It gets increasingly less detailed as it goes along and there's no sixth episode.

Episode one was about three pages of relatively detailed storyline, even scene breakdown. I stuck to that fairly precisely (bar for including a TARDIS library scene at the top as I thought there needed to be a slow entrance for the Doctor and Leela). The major additions were Butler and Charlotte from the village, largely to give other characters people to talk to in scenes that would otherwise have been completely silent. In a few cases - like teleporting the Doctor in episode three - Charlotte got Leela's part of the storyline, but by and large I developed her separately as she didn't exist (her main sub-plot was conceived largely to provide the pun punchline at the story's end). Butler was part of a conscious decision to ape Robert Banks Stewart stories from the TV show, that Chase/Scorby set up.

Episode two and three I tried to finesse a bit, collating a few capture/escapes into one to avoid it being too much of a runaround. And trying to smooth over the two/three location change a bit.

I felt when reading it that you can slightly feel Robert running out of steam the further he goes on. Each episode gets shorter and less detailed. By the time we get to episode five, it's a single page that basically amounts to 'the Doctor builds a gun... it doesn't work'. I was gratified when Robert was interviewed in DWM that he said pretty much the same thing. He recognised himself in the first three episodes, less in four and five, so I think my instincts to punch up the second half were right. I've said before that I view the story as starting almost entirely with Robert (episode one), and ending entirely with me (episode six) and that the rest work on a sliding scale between the two. By the time you get to episode four, there's rough similarities between my script and the storyline, but nothing like the direct correlation of episode one. I tried to keep things like the cliffhangers broadly the same (the exception being episode five's cliffhanger, where I added about five extra elements of peril, because really, a story should be ramping up - if the cliffhanger at the end of a fifth episode isn't the biggest thing ever, it should be!). And the major characters all die at the same place in the narrative and in a broadly similar way.

Having said that, I did deliberately up the gruesome sadism a bit, to capture that Seeds of Death feeling, which is why so many people die horribly, and the villains all get rather hoist on their own petards.

How do you begin pacing a six part Doctor Who story without resorting to padding?

I think the old thing about a two parter followed by a four parter works, although I think Foe is more 2:3:1, which is closer to classical structure.  I did try and finesse the episodes across this a bit though, so it's less obviously chunks of discrete plot, threads crossing over across the broad structural chunks.

Otherwise, I think it comes back to what I said regarding the Lost Stories - scale. You have to make the story big enough to justify the length. That's true every time. I thought when I was casting around for ideas for what eventually became 'Special Features' that the key to a one-parter is an idea that you couldn't write any longer. It can't just be a condensed two parter (unless you're a Steven Hall level genius). It has to be a small idea you explore fully. And it works all that way every time. The type of villain I have in a two parter, and what they're up to (the slightly amateurish villainy of Stone et al in Jalxar, for example) is smaller than in a four parter (warring families in The Burning Prince) and that in turn is smaller than in a six parter (entire species and universes). For a six parter you're writing an epic - so there need to be enough threads and characters and scale to justify it. Certainly, I loved having that amount of time. I was able to build arcs into the story for everyone, give every character their own journey, set things up five episodes in advance in some cases. And take my time letting the characters grow. I think the length is one of the reasons I like it so much.

Swan Song and Beautiful Things were both highlights of their respective seasons of Jago & Litefoot. Is it as much fun writing for these two characters as it appears?

Very much so. Everything about them is fun. Writing them is effectively just dropping them in a situation and seeing what they do, you practically watch it happen on the page. You've the best seats in the house. They're just so distinct and well performed and beautifully put together. One of these days I'll write for them again, I hope!

Was Swan Song an attempt to do something completely different with the range and set the majority of the tale in the modern day?

Perhaps, but it was Justin's idea so you'd have to ask him. I loved the set up though, and again that script's something of a favourite. I'm aware it's had something of a mixed response from the fans because they don't feel it fits the series as they view it, but I'm really proud of it and think if you release your inhibitions and view in independently and objectively, it's not a bad piece of work.

With Beautiful Things, how easily did you find the worlds of Jago & Litefoot and Oscar Wilde colliding?

Well, I'd had it set up for me already by Matthew Sweet and Andy Lane, so I knew where I was going, but it was no great hardship. He fits that world fairly perfectly! So witty and loquacious, he might have been invented for the series. I was quite lucky in that one as the plot came relatively quickly. I always wanted to deal with his art, his sexuality, his tragedy and his love of beauty. Again, I'm deeply proud of this piece, I think it stands as a fitting tribute to a great man.

What do you think is the reason for the continuing success and excitement surrounding this range?

Great actors playing characters. It really is as simple as that. I like some stories more than others, that's bound to happen... but what I'm addicted to and what keeps me coming back  are Trevor and Christopher.

Of your stories of late what has been your most rewarding experience?

Well, of the ones I can talk about, probably The Assassination Games. Having the monthly range release for the 50th Anniversary month was a lot of pressure (that's the one I mentioned earlier) and I always wanted to have a story that lived up to that. Alan had given me quite a shopping list and it took quite some time before I had a story that worked for me, but when I did I really really loved it. There's a James Bond influence there, both the films and the books - such a quintessential sixties figure, but too big a style of story to fit into the hour long tales of regular Counter-Measures storylines - suddenly I had the space to do it justice. Bond fans will probably notice the quite obvious specific influence on the story, but I've thrown in a few twists of my own that no-one's done before. And for anyone who thought the plot of The Burning Prince was too simple, this one is for you. You'll have to properly pay attention, it's enormously complicated - something I feel is sort of required if you're going for a McCoy story.

I think it's a lot of fun. In particular I love the villains and I may want to try and bring them back at some point too as I think they have the potential and the originality to make that work. One of the actors told us of his increasing delight as he read the script - 'Oh, I'm a bad guy... Oh, I'm a really bad guy... Oh, I'm an 'X' bad guy planning 'Y'...'  It was lovely to write for the C-M team. It took me until series two before I got to run with them, and I discovered they're all terrific to write, very similar to Jago and Litefoot in that it almost happens without you thinking. And another joyous aspect was setting it between seasons twenty five and six. No-one ever uses that gap and I wanted to see what it gives you - an angst free Ace is probably the big one. She's just having a ball saving the world and constantly saying 'Gordon Bennet' and other fun expostulations. So that one - I adore it.

That's probably more a question of it being the latest one I've done, of course, reasonably fresh in my head. So I should probably mention the next two Tom Baker scripts I've got - the King of Sontar and the Crooked Man. One of the nicest things people have said about me on the forums was that you'd never be able to tell my scripts were by the same person, because they're largely different in style, and these two really emphasise that, I think. Sontar is an action script, Crooked Man is more elegiac and fairy tale - a scientific romance, not science-fiction (something I think is probably characteristic of most of my work), with a fair sense of humour.

I'm entertained by the fact people on Facebook and Twitter have thought we might not be aware of the Leela/Sontaran meeting in Invasion of Time. We're fans, of course we do! It was a minor level head-scratcher, I'll admit. I didn't want Leela to go all amnesiac, that's too obvious and easy - she remembers absolutely every part of the adventure, and yep, she meets more than one Sontaran. Fortunately the story concept worked in my favour, and a careful viewing of Invasion of Time helped me out too. I'll warn you in advance, though - it isn't spelt out and you'll need to pay close attention to both stories in the balance to get it, but I'll happily go into detail after the release for anyone who misses it!

Crooked Man... not sure what I can say about this one. Creepy goings on in an English seaside town, that about sums it up.With a few twists and turns. Rather unusually, it's a story where the Doctor and Leela don't really split up. There's a couple of pages where one might have raced off ahead of the other, but by and large they hang out together, which was fun to write.

What can you tell us of the future with Big Finish and other projects?

For Big Finish - more of the same. Lots of writing, some acting, some script editing. I've a small part in the 50th anniversary release The Light at the End, a little thank you for helping it to become reality and get made! I got to read in for most of the different Doctors at different times, which was fun. I think people will really enjoy it.

I've been adapting the missing episodes of The Avengers into audio. By and large, I've barely touched them as we wanted to keep them as close as possible to how they would have been transmitted. This has meant switching off my editors hat and avoiding solving plot holes, tying up loose ends if they weren't solved or tied up fifty years ago! I'm really looking forward to this one - the casting for Steed and Keel should have been impossible, but the choices are so spot on I bought into the project immediately. They'll be terrific.

Lots of exciting scripts for all manner of ranges I can't mention. The letter i becomes problematic for somebody both new and old. An old enemy meets a new creation. The dark finale for a new range. Other things to adapt, an old friend in new forms.

Outside Big Finish, I'm working with the company's own Steven Hall on a transmedia project for the National Theatre. And I'm due to record the second series of the BBC Radio 4 sitcom I appear in, My First Planet, later this year. The first series is repeating as I type. Beyond that... who knows? Exciting times.

3 comments:

BSC SSC said...

Great interview. Do you just email your questions to your interviewees, or have you ever interviewed them in person?

Joe Ford said...

I email the questions, the writers get to think through their answers. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Steve said...

Great interview. John Dorney is swell!