Friday, 25 July 2014

Jonathan Morris Interview Extra

The Curse of Davros was a story with an insane shopping list of ingredients. Flip's introduction, Davros and the Daleks, a historical setting... Did you decide to include all of these elements or were they handed to you?

Most of those elements were in the brief. The historical setting was my idea, I just thought it would be amusing to have the Daleks turn up at the battle of Waterloo and join in on the French side. Not the most dark or serious of ideas. But it contrast, the chance to write about Davros meant I could explore his psychology, his existence in a state of pain. The intention was to do a big Russell T Davies-style season-opener; tell the story from a new companion’s point of view, and go big, and mad, and try to sum up all of Doctor Who in one story.

How did Flip go from being a one off character to a full time companion?

Lisa blew everyone away at the recording for the Thomas Brewster story. It wasn’t that her character was particularly well-written or defined with any depth in that story – I put my hand up to that, she was only intended to be a one-off, brought into the story to provide an everyday-person perspective – but Lisa made her so real, and so funny, and gave quirky, unexpected but very real line readings, it was obvious she was on her first rung on the ladder to stardom. Another Sheridan Smith. So Big Finish grabbed her and signed her up before she became too successful. Then the question was whether to create a new character for her, or to continue with Flip. And as any new character would be similar to Flip, we thought we’d continue with her. Which meant with The Curse of Davros – or Waterloo of the Daleks as it was called all through writing and recording – I had to properly introduce and define the character in a way I hadn’t done in Crimes of Thomas Brewster. But it was also a great and unique opportunity, to tell a story about someone who has met the Doctor before but who doesn’t really know him, so if he wasn’t acting himself, she wouldn’t notice.

How difficult did you find it to disguise the twist at the heart of this story?

It was tricky. On the one hand, you want it to come as a big surprise when it’s revealed, but on the other, the dialogue and the performances have to be true to those characters, even if it risks giving away the twist early. That was Alan Barnes’ note on my first draft, and he was right. So, yes, because of the nature of the situation and the performances, some people got the twist early. Some didn’t. But the point was to explore the situation beyond it being a twist, to use it as a starting point, so whether or not a listener guesses it, they still get some mileage out of the idea, it’s central to the story, not just a gimmick.

Were you pleased with the finished result?

Yes. It was fantastic. The recording session was kind of chaotic, because I’d written so many characters, far more than normal, so half the British and French forces were gathered in the green room at the Moat. But with something like the battle of Waterloo, you have to go big. But I was delighted with the end result, particularly the performances given by Colin Baker and Terry Molloy, who both rose to the challenge the story presented, and the scene where Flip meets Napoleon and tells him about ABBA makes me laugh just thinking about it. My only quibble is that I’d wanted episode four to open with La Marseillaise going into the Doctor Who theme, like at the beginning of All You Need Is Love, but maybe that was considered too silly or beyond the pale.

How do you think Flip has fared since her debut?

Really well, I think. I’m particularly pleased with the stories that have fleshed out her background more, those by William Gallagher, which have made her more ‘real’, and which have developed the original character point that her bravado and recklessness will be her undoing, and that she is living on borrowed time.

Protect and Survive received widespread critical acclaim for its terrifying plotline and stifling atmosphere. What was your inspiration for telling this story?

My inspiration is that nuclear war has been, and still is, my greatest fear. I’m tempted to say it’s ever since I saw Threads but I suspect I was frightened of it before then. The horror of it, the sheer cruel perversity of it, of people being blinded by the flash and then having the seconds tick by before the blast kills them, or dying of radiation sickness in a world where there is no birdsong, just ash falling from the sky like snow. It’s terrifying. So that was one inspiration. I had a vague idea of working it up into a Sapphire & Steel story, back when Big Finish did Sapphire & Steel, but nothing came of that.

My other inspiration was the TV version of Human Nature. To be precise, the ending, where the Doctor subjects the members of the Family of Blood to eternal punishments that are as cruel as they are weird. That part of the story didn’t sit easily with me. I’m not saying it was a misjudgement, but it made me question the Doctor’s morality, that he doles out punishments like some sort of god. It’s more the sort of thing you would expect from the seventh Doctor, so that was my other starting point; what if the Doctor’s companions found themselves trapped in one of the Doctor’s eternal punishments?

How much of the Hex/Fenric arc were you aware of when you wrote this story?

I had a meeting in Oxford with Matt and Mike and Alan. Matt was already thinking about Beowulf and plans were already laid for the final story. I had the easy job of starting things off, so my story could be fairly self-contained as it wasn’t following on from anything. With these arcs there’s always a balancing act between making each story work as its own entity and tying everything together into a developing storyline. Go too self-contained and the arc suffers, focus too much on the arc and the individual stories suffer.

Sylvester McCoy barely features, was it quite refreshing to give the companions the bulk of the action?

Refreshing is not the word. Difficult is the word. It was a very, very difficult story to write. Partly because of the grim tone and depressing subject matter, but also because of the very small cast and limited setting. I found, writing episode two, that I was getting through the story much more quickly than anticipated and had to email Alan for help. By way of a rescue, it turned out that they could get Sylvester in to do a day’s worth of recording, so I could fill one of my episodes by telling an extended ‘flashback’ of how the Doctor had set up the dimensional purgatory (or whatever you want to call it), which meant I had enough remaining story for the fourth episode. But it was very panicky for a while there. For the first and last time, I floundered.

But it turned out well in the end. The cast were terrific, Sophie and Philip did a blinder, particularly in episode four, Sylvester powered through some long speeches, and the cliffhanger at the end of episode one is incredibly powerful, partly because of the writing but also the performances and the sound design. When I was listening to it, my reaction was, ‘Bloody hell, that’s scary’, and I wrote it. But then again, I wrote it as being a story about the thing that I’m most frightened of, so I should find it scary.

And it seems to have gone down very well, it’s probably one of my best things. Despite – or probably because – of how difficult and stressful it was to write.

The Space Race was the middle adventure of the 1963 arc. You made an inspired choice to link this story into an important historical event of the time. Was that always your starting point?

The brief was a story set in 1963. And not about The Beatles, because Eddie was doing that. And not about cold war spy shenanigans, because Dorney was doing that. And preferably set outside the UK. So I had a bit of a think about stuff going on in 1963, and the thought of the Great Train Robbery didn’t appeal, so I decided to make it broader. Whilst also tying it in very specifically with the events of November 23. I had three big, bonkers ideas for the story – which comprise the three cliffhangers, and then it was just a matter of joining them up in an approximately logical way.

You write a phenomenal sixth Doctor - what are the aspects of his character that appeal to you the most?

Well, that’s very kind. I think his Doctor is very self-confident, he’s not prone to false modesty, and he’s quite garrulous and sesquipedalian, which works well on audio. He dominates scenes and drives stories forward, which can make like difficult (which is why so many TV stories sidelined him, because he’s so powerful) but it forces you to come up with more challenging situations, so that he still has to work.

You gave Peri a great deal to do in this story, do you think she has a lot of potential beyond her TV material?

Yes. I think all the companions do. Well, maybe not Kamelion. I just think it’s what listeners expect now. On the TV show back in the 1980s it was all about plot, so characters were by necessity quite superficial or stereotypical, but nowadays one of the reasons why people buy the audios is for the characters to be explored, or portrayed, in more depth. And with Peri, you have a great character established in Planet of Fire, where she stands up to the Master brilliantly, but then she quickly got reduced to the usual companion stereotype of complaining, screaming and asking questions. Which is fine, but you need to give her proper, valid reasons for complaining and screaming and make sure her questions are intelligent.

Were you concerned that people wouldn't take to the idea of Liaka forming a canine rebellion on Earth?

The Laika thing was partly inspired by a suggestion from Alan Barnes to tell an Animal Farm story behind the iron curtain. The great difficulty with this part of the story was to keep it serious, as it could quite easily become ridiculous, even Pythonesque. So I avoided any humour, and dialled up the violence and gruesome-ness, to take an outlandish idea and portray it utterly realistically. And I hope it was clear that Laika was acting out of a sense of morality, that she wasn’t just after revenge. Certainly I think Samantha Beart did a fantastic job with a part that could so, so easily have misfired. But dogs performing surgery without opposable digits; I wrote myself into a bit of a corner there.

Given this was your anniversary story do you think it turned out as well as you expected?

I think it worked very well. It might not have been the story people were expecting, as the cover, pre-publicity, and the first episode set it up as an Ambassadors of Death/Quatermass type thing, with spy shenanigans. And then it turns out to be something else. I like that, I think that’s a very Doctor Who thing. But maybe I should have gone even darker with it? Oh well, it’s only a shaggy dog story...

How many PG Wodehouse books have you read?

Oh, at least forty-odd. All Jeeves stories, naturally, and lots of the self-contained ones. My favourite, of those that I’ve read so far, is a short story called The Reverent Wooing of Archibald. The Auntie Matter was a chance to pay tribute (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). I borrowed a little of the plot from Joy in the Morning (the idea of someone being instantly attracted to someone after seeing them buying a clever book). Reginald is named after Reginald Pepper, a ‘prototype’ of Bertie Wooster. Mabel is from Jeeves in the Springtime. The colourfully-nomenclatured Zenobia Brabazon is named after Zenobia Hopwood and Major Brabazon-Plank. Grenville is named after the ‘G’ of PG Wodehouse. And Ligeia is named after my former agent. But with The Auntie Matter I wanted to throw in all the elements; people falling into duckponds, ferocious aunts and modern-minded girls, a chap falling in love at first sight. If I’d been permitted a larger cast I’d have added a country bobby on a bicycle getting mixed up in proceedings.

Was it exciting to have the chance to write for Mary Tamm's Romana?

Well, I’d written for her before, briefly, in Tales from the Vault. It’s always lovely to write for an established character where you have a specific actor’s voice in mind. And what I’m most proud of is that I got some feedback from Mary about how much she loved the script (I wasn’t at the recording session).

What is easier to write, a more humorous tale or a frightening one (such as Phantoms of the Deep)?

They’re not that different. A moment of suspense and a joke both have the same mechanics of build-up and surprise. But trying to write a humorous tale and trying to write a humorous tale to the standard set by PG Wodehouse, that’s a world of difference. Every line has to do work, the language, the rhythm of dialogue, the 1920s slang and literary references. What I’m most proud of this story is that I don’t think I failed entirely in matching Wodehouse’s style. Certainly there are some lines in there that make me laugh – ‘You nearly demolished a passing hen’, ‘Given sufficient cross-wind, my skull has been known to emit a high-pitched whistling sound’.

The cast seemed to react encouragingly to the script, is it always a delight to hear your words being brought to life by such talented people?

There are five highlights to each release. 1. Getting commissioned. 2. Finishing the first draft. 3. Getting paid. 4. Going to the recording (if invited) and 5. Listening to the finished product. It’s hard to choose a favourite out of the five highlights, I appreciate them all equally. The Auntie Matter turned out exceptionally well, I think. Reggie’s comedy rhotacism wasn’t in the script and I kind of wish I’d said something during the recording because it might look like I was poking fun at speech impediments, but apart from that I couldn’t be happier.

Phantoms of the Deep sat in the heart of the second season of 4DAs as a gorgeous little chiller set under the sea. Did you have the atmospherics in mind when writing this?

Very much. It came pretty much hot on the heels of The Auntie Matter. I submitted another storyline inbetween, called Criminal World, which featured Rasputin and which was based on an idea I’d been kicking around for the comic strip (which I was still writing at the time). The idea was too comedic so I scrapped it (I’ve since made it work as a Vienna episode, nothing is ever wasted). Anyway, David Richardson wanted something ‘dark’, and it couldn’t be historical or futuristic or space operatic because of other stories in the season, so I thought, there’s never been a Doctor Who story set on a submarine, why not do something like that? In that whole The Abyss/The Deep/Sphere sub-genre (sub-genre!). Claustrophobic, spooky, and it would allow me to indulge one of my fascinations, those weird and wonderful creatures of the extreme deep. And I’d been kicking around an idea of doing a Gremlins-type story, which is where the ghostly goblins came from (that and from Dickens). It was one of those wonderful occasions of having a really obvious idea that hasn’t been done yet, where the story kind of plots itself as you throw in all the things that you could find at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Originally it was set in 1978 but at Nick Briggs suggestion it was set in the near future. My main memory of the recording is that Tom Baker would act out swimming whenever he had swimming scenes – it seems kind of bonkers but it did help the performance. Although it wasn’t as intricate as The Auntie Matter the plotting was still pretty strong; Phantoms of the Deep really is a four-part strong boiled down to the strongest, tightest two-parter possible, which is a great way of working.

Fascinating fact. I’m always stuck for character names so for this one, for no reason whatsoever, I named them after the cast of Survivors.

Did you ask for K.9 to be included?

No, K-9 was in the brief. Which kind of set me a challenge; clearly K-9 isn’t very well equipped for an underwater story, he can’t swim and it would be kind of silly to have him in his own mini-sub, so I had to find lots of interesting stuff for him to do, so he ended up becoming quite central to it, and in particular to the cliff-hanger.

Do you like the character?

I do, a lot. I suspect he was one of the first things in the show I latched onto as a very small child. His character is actually very interesting, because you have the pedantic, know-all computer element, plus the canine element, plus a slightly camp, superior element. He reminds me of Gil Chesterton from Frasier. Camp robots/computers were a thing back then, Star Wars had C-3P0, Blake’s 7 had Orac.

There are few more authentic 4DAs than Last of the Colophon, a tale told in a handful of sets with some vivid characters. Was your aim to write something as nostalgic as this?

I’d never call it nostalgia. The aim is to be authentic. Now, that may evoke certain feelings and associations, that whole ‘It’s teatime in 1977’ thing, but clearly the idea of being nostalgic about new material is absurd. Half the people listening to these things aren’t old enough to even remember the 70s. But they’ll have the videos, the DVDs, of not just Doctor Who but Blake’s 7, so they’ll know what sort of quarries those shows would visit, what the film stock would look like, what the studio scenes would look like, even down to the wall flats used for corridors and how they would be lit. Last of the Colophon has a lot of Blake’s 7 in it. So it was kind of appropriate that Blake turned up for the recording.

Again you seem very much aware of how to generate chills on audio (Leela being menaced by Morax in the dark). Is that something that comes with experience?

I’m not sure. Certainly there is an element of experience, in knowing how audio drama works and the possibilities available, that you can create a dramatically immersive situation by having a character move from shouting at the far end of the room to whispering right up close in the listener’s lughole; there is a tendency to go, ‘it’s audio, so everyone is standing perfectly still at the same distance from the listener’, but you can have people moving around and establish a sense of geography which you can use as part of the drama. That was something I had to use for Last of the Colophon because of the nature of the story. So there is a certain amount of technique, but a lot of it comes down to trusting the actors and the directors (or having the experience of knowing that you can trust them). There’s not a lot of atmosphere on the page of an audio script (unless you write FX: SPOOKY ATMOSPHERE)

Geoffrey Beevers Master has taken on a life of his own on audio. How did it feel to be the writer who would give him a chance to give him a voice in the companion chronicles?

I’d written for him a tiny, tiny bit before, as I worked a bit on redrafting The Oseidon Adventure because Alan was under the weather, but my contribution comprised mainly of one scene. It was nice to give him a proper adventure, and make him the protagonist (though all villains are, in their minds, the protagonists). Master had already explored the Master’s childhood, and then the new series gave him another childhood of strange woodland initiation rites, so I decided to concentrate on the Master’s psychology rather than his rationale, and to give him a journey of a rise and a fall – villains are more interesting at their weakest, their most desperate, than when they’re sitting on a big throne in charge of the universe. Stories like The Deadly Assassin illustrate that beautifully; the Master is even more dangerous and horrifying as a char-grilled cadaver. So the story begins with him fleeing the TARDIS – following on from the events of the TV Movie and a Joe Lidster short story (note how the author goes out of his way to fit into established continuity!) – and then charting the rise of the Master as a criminal mastermind across the twentieth century, and his inevitable fall from grace (plus a funny bit where he gets onto the wrong boat). There’s a lot of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese in there, plus The Silence of the Lambs and a few quotes from Paradise Lost – the Master identifying himself with Satan, an angel exiled from paradise. I can do highbrow!

Did you have any more of his exploits in mind when writing this?

The story hints at an earlier adventure in ancient Egypt where the Daleks capture the Master (before putting him on trial in the TV Movie), so there’s a story there to be told. I also had in mind the events of Utopia, where the Master escapes the Time War by becoming human, and so had a little bit of fun with some subtle foreshadowing.

Is there going to be a third instalment of the UNIT Vault stories?

Matheson and Sato will return (to the Vault) in The Worlds of Doctor Who later this year. Whether they survive that adventure, I couldn’t say.

What do you think about the closure of this highly popular series?

It’s a shame, as good work was being done, but given how much product Big Finish is putting out – and that releases like Dark Eyes and The Light at the End show there is a large market for ranges where new listeners can get in on the ground floor, so to speak, rather than not knowing where to start with pre-existing ranges, you can see why it makes sense to give the range a rest, to give people a chance to catch up, complete their collections, and listen to them all. But hopefully they’ll do some more one day, as I haven’t done a story for the first Doctor yet, and those ones tend to be the best (these facts may not be unrelated)!

Do you have any favourites?

Well, I haven’t listened to them all, and tend to go for those by authors I already enjoy; Marc Platt, Jac Rayner, Simon Guerrier. So, avoiding those authors, let me pick out three. The Mahogany Murderers, Solitaire and The Scorchies. Those are three of the ones I most envied.

Played by one female companion and directed by another, Ghost in the Machine was a deftly written and realised conceptual horror. What can you tell me about the inception and writing of this script?

There’s something inherently spooky about old recordings. Sapphire & Steel did a story about a creature trapped in the first photograph, so why not a creature trapped in the first recording – which, by a marvellous coincidence, is an incredibly spooky rendition of Mary Had A Little Lamb. I’d had that part of the idea years ago. The second element came from listening to the interviews at the end of Big Finish CDs, listening to some imposter pretending to me, who doesn’t even sound like me. I pitch my voice up to my ‘telephone voice’ for interviews, because of nervousness, and become incredibly hesitant and gabble-y, and it’s very disconcerting to hear back. So that inspired the idea of ‘What if there was something speaking with your voice on a tape recording... and it really wasn’t you’. Which felt spooky. And then when I was asked to write a Jo story, I remembered the really handy device in Planet of the Daleks that she narrates her adventure into a tape recorder, and it all came together.

Is Katy Manning, the actress of a thousand voices, a joy to write for?

Ghost in the Machine didn’t call for a thousand voices, but it did call for some pretty weird stuff – at one point she’s playing the Doctor pretending to be Jo, so a performance within a performance – as well as an evil version of Jo. And Katy can handle pretty much anything you throw at her. One thing the Companion Chronicles have demonstrated is how much better, and how vastly more versatile, the Doctor Who companion actors are than we might sometimes give them credit for, because on television all they were given to do was to ask questions, react to things before they happened and scream.

Were you delighted by the result?

Of course. Part one worked particularly well, as that’s all about spooky moments, building up the atmosphere and the tension, while part two is all about explanations and finding solutions, and – let’s not forget – also had to be written only using words that were used in part one, an incredibly time-consuming and constrained form of writing. The Doctor Who equivalent of Gadsby.

Babblesphere was your contribution to the Destiny of the Doctor series and played to your inestimable strengths of capturing the bubbly tone of season 17. Is this your favourite period of Doctor Who to write for?

Possibly. I’m very wary that it might become a comfort zone thing, that I might start repeating myself and become just the Douglas Adams pastiche guy. But that period of Doctor Who is very dear to me, not just for nostalgic reasons but because I think that blend of imagination, humour and horror is what Doctor Who is, for me, and when you have other eras that aren’t as imaginative, or as humorous, I feel it’s missing something. It’s the era I see echoed most in the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat incarnations of the show; there’s all sorts of other influences and eras in there, but City of Death, from where I’m sitting, seems the most influential.

Did I detect a commentary on Doctor fandom within the workings of the Babblesphere?

A bit, but it’s about social media in general. Admittedly a lot of my experience of social media has been filtered through Doctor Who, through usenet, yahoogroups, forums, facebook and twitter, but it’s not specific to Doctor Who fandom. Because in Babblesphere it’s all gossip, it’s all quite kind-hearted, it’s not raging decade-long arguments! But, yes, the idea of a forum moderator being sent mad by the poor standard of debate and turning into a monster killing off the most witless did amuse me.

Given your penchant for the era, are you going to be contributing to the Lalla Ward season of 4DAs?

I think people would be very, very surprised if I didn’t. I’m bloody ubiquitous!

Did you find the 11th Doctor sequence intruded on your story at all?

Not really. It was part of the brief. It was mildly irritating that the brief changed a bit, originally (as I understood it) the 11th Doctor would have been introducing the stories, as well as Matt Smith turning up in each one, but plans change and, I don’t know, maybe it’s better how it turned out because it gives each Doctor a chance to shine without being overshadowed. So anyway, I had to think of a way of involving the 11th Doctor in a way that none of the other stories would, without him being the one who turns up and saves the day.

To answer a question you haven’t asked, the thing about Babblesphere that I’m most proud of is that originally I’d written it as a very The Sun Makers type story of people in grey overalls in grey corridors, very authentic but also very boring, and John Ainsworth kept pushing me to make it more interesting, which is why it ended up set in a reproduction of Versailles with little old ladies as the rebel force and robots that look like chandeliers. I grumbled a little about being pushed but John was right to do so.


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