Monday, 26 May 2014

Simon Guerrier Interview Extra II

You have written more companion chronicles than any other writer, all of them extremely popular. What did you learn as a writer producing such a prolific number of stories for the range?

Hullo Joe. That's very kind of you to say so. I wrote more than anyone else mostly due to circumstance. For example, the outline for Home Truths took longer than usual to get approved because it had to go via Terry Nation's agent who needed to check on the particulars of Sara Kingdom. After it had been a few months, and we were beginning to think it might not happen, producer David Richardson commissioned me for what became The Prisoner's Dilemma – and then just as I started that, the approval for Home Truths came in, so I wrote both about the same time.

The Memory Cheats, The Uncertainty Principle and The Anachronauts were all written because scripts by other writers had been delayed. Well, by another writer - singular – as in each case it was John Dorney, who kept being asked to write new things for Tom Baker and so on, damn him. And I don't think the Oliver Harper trilogy was originally intended to be released all within one year. David just took pity on me when I was having a bad patch with other freelance work. That was extraordinary kindness on his part.

I learnt lots of practical things writing my Companion Chronicles, such as ways to create and build atmosphere, make the exposition more vivid, and draw the audience in. I've learnt lots from the research I've done on the stories, too – I ended up doing a GCSE course in astronomy as a result of working on The Cold Equations, and I've read a lot of books and things to prepare for some of the others. But the main thing I learnt was how much I love working with the three people who really oversaw that range: producer David Richardson, script editor Jacqueline Rayner and director Lisa Bowerman.

Now that the Companion Chronicles have all been recorded we have the chance to look back at the quality and variety that range has had to offer. What do you think were the unique qualities that this range had that made them so popular?

For me, what made the format so effective was getting into the companions' heads and hearing their thoughts about the time they spent with the Doctor. That's something you only get from their narrating in the first person. It means there's a perspective not only on the particular story but of that period of Doctor Who more generally.

Do you have any particular favourites, both of your own output and what others have written?

Oh, plenty. I'm very pleased with mine – as much because of the performances, sound design and just the fun of making them as because of what I might have written. But there are so many good ones in the range. Frostfire – the very first one – is utterly enthralling and the feel of it was a big influence on Home Truths. Nigel Fairs' stories for Leela were a big influence, too – at least, they encouraged me to push what my stories might do. To be honest, I've nicked loads from the other stories in the range: for example, Mother Russia and The Suffering gave me much more of a handle on Steven Taylor's character than his TV stories did. Then there are then ones that have stopped me in my tracks and made me want to up my game, like the amazing The Last Post. And then there are the ones that are just a delight to listen to: The Mahogany Murders, The Beautiful People, Peri and the Piscon Paradox, The Scorchies, Council of War... Oh, there are too many to mention.

The First Wave features two brave decisions, to bring back a distinctly unpopular monster (the Vardans) and to write out a companion in a pretty permanent sort of way. Why the Vardans? Did you think they deserved a second airing and that they were more suited to the audio medium? Was Oliver always only going to feature in three stories? Can you tell us something of his journey in the three stories that you wrote for him. What was it like writing for an all male TARDIS team?

The Vardans came about for two reasons. First, I wanted something extra for the third part of the trilogy – just as we'd brought back Mavic Chen and Bret Vyon for The Guardian of the Solar System. So I was thinking of old monsters. I remembered that we'd been able to use the Guardians in Key 2 Time because they were owned by the BBC and so included in our licence for Doctor Who – we didn't have to pay extra to a writer, like we do for the Daleks or Cybermen. So I asked David Richardson who else was included in the licence, and the Vardans were one of those. If I remember rightly, it's all down to The Invasion of Time having been writing by the script editor on the TV show while he was in post, so the work is owned by the BBC rather than him as a freelancer. Or something.

The Vardans appealed to me because they'd not been altogether effective on TV. With a well-realised monster, you run the risk of producing a sequel that's just not as good as the original, whereas here I had something to build on. And then, doing my astronomy GCSE, I had a homework question about how far our radio signals have reached into space. That got me thinking about who might receive those signals, and from that came the story.

Oliver Harper – his name, his background, a lot of his character and what happened to him – was all in the brief from David Richardson. I was thrilled to be trusted with that assignment and loved working with actor Tom Allen. The initial idea was to base Oliver on Dirk Bogarde's character in the film Victim (1961), in which a happily married barrister is blackmailed having been photographed in a car with a young man.  So I watched that film and some other ones with Bogarde, did some research into the stock market of the 1960s, and wrote The Perpetual Bond round that. David also got me to listen to The Suffering, which helped with the comedy bits and rounding out Steven's character.

Once that had been recorded, I based the second two stories much more on the characters of Steven and Oliver as played by Peter and Tom, and talked to them a bit about where it was all going. I only realised as I was writing the last one that I'd left no space between the three stories for more adventures with Oliver, but I rather like the idea that there's no room for any more. I spend my whole time slotting new adventures in between the TV stories, so it feels a bit wicked to say no, there can't be more for Oliver. And I think it makes us feel his loss more, too. Also, I am a rotter.

As for writing an old-male TARDIS team, it makes for a different feel of story but I'm not sure what it changes in terms of the writing. I introduced a female Vardan in the last story as much because I knew she could be played by director Lisa Bowerman (and for no extra cost) as to balance things out in terms of gender. Does that make me a bad person?

The Anachronauts is a double length companion chronicle featuring the first Doctor, Steven and Sara. What benefits/disadvantages does the extended length bring with it? What appeals to you about writing for Sara Kingdom? Do you think that The Daleks' Masterplan lends itself for all these additional adventures?

The Anachronauts had to be written very quickly, as I remember, because it was a replacement for something else that had been delayed. And then I managed to lose 7,000 words of it when my Word template crashed, despite me being diligent in backing up all the time. So I really don't remember much of the writing except as one big panic.

The original idea was to tell two separate stories that then turned out to be one big story. I thought that was making life easy for myself, as I was used to writing Companion Chronicles of the normal length. I don't think it ended up making anything easier. Ho hum.

The other problem was that I'd already written a trilogy each for Steven and Sara, so struggled a bit to find something new to say about them. For those stories, I'd picked over the TV episodes of The Daleks' Master Plan, so this time I read John Peel's novelisations, which included more on their relationship and gave me something new to hook on to. As I said before, the Companion Chronicles let you cast new light on a particular era of Doctor Who, so it's a question of finding that angle. But whether The Daleks' Master Plan lends itself to all these new stories... Er, I have a vested interested in saying yes, of course it does. Dare you to say otherwise.

You corrected me on my misunderstanding of the Uncertainty Principle in my review - was it your intention to teach a little science to the audience? Is it tough to crack a scientist like Zoe and make her inner thoughts accessible to a wider audience? How much did you work in collusion with John Dorney regarding the overarching framing device of Zoe in prison slowly remembering her time with the Doctor?

I hadn't planned to teach anyone anything. It's more about what I find interesting, and interesting enough to explore in a story. Shadow of the Past came out of something someone said: a soldier returning from a long stint in Afghanistan that he saw his job as going where things were kicking off, standing in the middle and shouting “Stop”. The Guardian of the Solar System came from the clock in The Hudsucker Proxy – one of my favourite films. If the thing I'm noodling over is a bit of history or science, I try to get it right in the story, which means reading up on it or – even better – finding someone who knows about it and taking them for a drink. It's as much about keeping the job interesting for me, and encouraging me to learn something as I write these things. My worry is to ensure I don't get derivative. There's always something new – as least for me – in what I'm writing.

I think I struggled more to get in the mindset of a scientist with Liz Shaw in Shadow of the Past, and picked the brains of my friend Dr Marek Kukula for that. With Zoe, I really just followed what John Dorney had done.

John did a great job with Zoe in Echoes of Grey, and my job in The Memory Cheats was just to say what happened next – which was like a parlour game, and great fun to do. John – and producer David Richardson – then had quite firm ideas about what the trilogy (as it was then) would be, so I think there was more rewriting and remoulding than usual to fit with those plans. I remember arguing that Zoe should be happier and more fulfilled in her life after the Doctor, because I am a big softy. That didn't fit with John's diabolical schemes, so my happy skippy ending got over-ruled. The man is a monster.

Then his finale got delayed so I was asked to write another instalment, and The Uncertainty Principle was much easier because I had a better grasp of what David and John needed it to do. As a courtesy, John then sent me the script for his finale, Second Chances, and I got to make a few suggestions. (I am hoping my idea for big, happy ending with dancing and cake makes it to the final version.)

The Library of Alexandria is one of my favourites, a stunning tour de force performance from William Russell bringing to life an emotive, educational script. I loved the fact that a monster from the Bernice series (the Mim) turned up into the most unlikely of Doctor Who eras. What was the reasoning behind that? Although the production team in the shows early years were ambitious this is a story that would have been far beyond their resources. Is that ever a consideration when writing a script? Do you like to keep things as authentic as possible or simply let your imagination determine the scale of the story? What sort of research did you have to do to capture the setting? Can you say a few words for William Russell's contributions.

Thank you. It all came from watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos series, which I'd got on DVD for my birthday. There's a sequence in that where he wanders round a mocked-up version of the library of Alexandria and helps himself to the long-lost books. I wanted to do a historical story after so many ones about physics, and that had the right feel.

My touchstone was the TV story Marco Polo, which told a huge story spanning months of time and whole continents. So in my head, The Library of Alexandria is an adaptation of a seven-part TV story that had lots of filming at Ealing to do the harbour bits.

But having set that up, the second half of the story just seemed a bit flat – I didn't want to do what happens in the film Agora, where Hypatia just happens to stumble onto Keppler's laws of planetary motion hundreds of years before he did. And I didn't want the Doctor and his friends to just meet her, have a chat and walk away. So I introduced the alien book... and then the aliens looking for it seemed a natural progression. Then it seemed fun to set up what seems like a pure historical story, and have a monster cliffhanger. I used the Mim because they're my creation, free to use and can smash things. (Strictly speaking, I used them in a Doctor Who short story before they appeared in Benny's adventures.)

Once I'd written the script, I sent it to my clever friend John J Johnston (who you can watch here explaining that Sutekh wrote the first recorded chat-up line in history, to his brother: John gave me some great notes – not just about the history I'd got appallingly wrong, but also where things weren't clear and so on. He also advised on the artwork for the cover.

I was delighted to get to write for William Russell, though sadly other commitments meant I couldn't be at the recording. What an amazing job he did, bringing it all to life. Though, of course, he says there was never any question of Ian and Barbara getting together. HE IS WRONG.

Your final companion chronicle (for the time being) is The War to End All Wars. Do you think that Steven makes a good narrator for these stories? Was the centenary of the First World War an influence in the telling of this war story? Will we ever learn the outcome of the framing narrative? Is there space for more stories featuring Dodo?

Er, yes, I think Steven is a good narrator or I wouldn't have used him. And Peter Purves must think I'm not too terrible as a writer because he asked for me to write more for him, which is how The War to End All Wars came about. That's probably the nicest compliment I've ever been paid for my scribbling.

I wrote the script wanting to push Peter a bit – he's a very good and versatile actor, and I knew he'd make it work. And yes, the centenary of the war was a big consideration. As I say in the sleeve notes, my first idea was to write a story as if it had been made in 1966 for the TV show and influenced by the writing of Alex Comfort, after Matthew Sweet told me that Comfort was one of the people Gerry Davis considered as a scientific advisor on Doctor Who. Comfort wrote about the mentality of war, which gave me the in for the story. And then it struck me that, if the story had been made for television in 1966, any old men in the cast would probably have served in the First World War. So I was thinking about how a family show on the BBC at the time would handle the sensitivities of something like that.

The Doctor-in-a-jar was a very late addition, after wise Jonny Morris pointed out that the copy of the Doctor's mind survives at the end of The Savages. I wrote the cliffhanger ending in the hope that I could somehow force Big Finish to do more Companion Chronicles, or at least give me a job on the Early Adventures, or somewhere.

As for what happens next... I know what I'd like to happen and I've talked it through with producer David Richardson. As to whether you get to hear those devious schemes, and in what format that would be... Wait and see.

Shadow of Death was your contribution to 50th anniversary audio series, Destiny of the Doctor. I found it refreshing to have a story with the most juvenile of TARDIS teams (the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe) treated so seriously. Was that a consideration? These stories play like companion chronicles written in the third person. Is that a difficult adjustment to make when you are used to writing in a different style? How was the running narrative with the eleventh Doctor turning up in these stories determined? It is a chilly, unnerving tale...were you pleased with the end result?

I didn't really think about their ages, to be honest. It was more about trying to match the feel of Season 6, in particular The Seeds of Death – which is magnificently strange and spooky, and then stops rather abruptly when the Doctor finds the solution. I'm not sure I quite managed it: a few people have said the ending of my story is a bit glib and easy, undercutting what's gone before. Oops.

The third person narration was fine – in fact, if it had been first person, I'd have had to explain how Zoe or Jamie could remember the events to recount them, given what happens to their memories in The War Games. And it makes for a different feel, and ties the Destiny of the Doctor stories together.

I'm really pleased with that story, and Frazer was amazing in getting the atmosphere exactly right. It's incredible watching him work, jumping from narrator to Doctor to Jamie without pausing, always making it clear who is speaking at any time. The effectiveness of the story is really down to him making that work so well.

As for the Eleventh Doctor, I don't think I'm breaking too many confidences when I say that the original plan was to have Matt Smith cameo in each story. As I remember, that didn't happen for boring logistical reasons – we needed to deliver the first two stories quite early to get them out in shops by January and February 2013 and the schedules didn't work. So my favourite bit of the script I wrote – the meeting of Frazer Hines' Second Doctor and Matt Smith's Eleventh – had to be massively reworked. These things happen, but when I hear the story now, I do miss that daft scene.

            FRAZER (NARRATING)
He was in the observation room where he'd first met Sophie and the others. Tables and chairs were arranged in front of the huge window that looked out on the amazing sky, the barren surface of the planet and the ruined city. The Doctor knew he shouldn't linger, that the whatever-it-was might follow him any moment. But he couldn't resist such a view.

And then he stopped. In the glass, like a ghost, he saw his own reflection. And beside it...

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            (HORROR) Oh no! Whatever it is, no! I don't want to hear it! (BEAT) Well, say something, can't you? It is you, isn't it? I mean, me. Somewhere under that chin.


            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            Hello, Doctor. You look... I was going to say “well”, but you look sort of jumpy. I've caught you at a bad time.
            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Well, yes, actually. I've just escaped from a -

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            I know I've caught you at a bad time. I remember this happening to me.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Oh. Well then, if you're me and if you remember, you'll know exactly what I'm going to say -

            What noise annoys an oyster?

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Hardly. You're breaking all the laws of time. Our people are going to catch up with you...

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            Doctor, I need your help.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Of all the pompous, conceited... The laws of time are important. We can't just make up the rules as we go along.

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            You do.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            I know what I'm doing! Give me one good reason why I should help you. I mean, apart from you being me. Another good reason.

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            We have a lot in common. Look. Bow-ties are cool.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            (OUTRAGE) Cool? COOL? (BEAT) Oh, do you think so? I suppose they are. Look, all right, I'm not saying I'll help but tell me what it is. And hurry up. As you must remember, there's an invisible monster in that room behind me.

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            I want you to turn round and go back in that room.


            SECOND DOCTOR:

What can we expect from you next, Simon?

I am currently producing a documentary for Radio 3's Sunday Feature, which will be on in the autumn. It's about Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Oliver. I am also writing some Big Finish things I can't tell you about, and attempting to interest people in some other things I wrote. And there's that movie script for Cleaning Up which needs some work doing on it... I say “some”. A bit like our staircase to the Moon needs a bit of work.


Anonymous said...

That was a thoroughly enjoyable.

Paolo said...

Thank You, that was a great interview. I like lots of Big Finish but I am always very happy when a story written by Simon Guerrier is on the books.

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