On Writing for the Doctor

On writing for the Doctor…

IAMTW Member Lance Parkin was interviewed by Death Ray Magazine about his work on the Dr. Who Tie-ins.

The Eyeless is one of Boxing Day’s three original Doctor Who novels, although eagle-eyed readers might already have spotted it on the shelves. We urge you in its general direction. Marking author Lance Parkin’s return to Who fiction, The Eyeless chronicles the tenth Doctor’s solo mission into the heart of a massive fortress. His aim: to put a devastating megaweapon beyond use.

A fan-favourite since the days of Virgin’s New Adventures, Lance’s previous work includes the critically acclaimed Just War,The Infinity Doctors and The Gallifrey Chronicles. He always had a knack for thrusting our favourite Time Lord into unorthodox situations, whether it was as a father, a lover, or as a diplomat permanently housed on Gallifrey. His contributions to the Doctor’s ongoing story are as vital as anyone’s. Death Ray emailed Lance about his new book, which you can also find him blogging about here. The interview is under the jump…

Death Ray
Hi, Lance. With a novel in progress, what have you found instructive about running a blog in tandem with the creative process? Has it interfered in any way?

Lance Parkin
As I say right at the start of the blog, it’s a bit of a cheat—I’d finished the book before it was announced, so I’ve not been blogging when I was meant to be writing. The Doctor Who readership isn’t shy about giving feedback—the Who books must be some of the most discussed, analysed and reviewed new novels in the world. So I’ve never been flying blind.

The creative process with The Eyeless was an odd mix this time. I’ve written a fair few Doctor Who books, and that’s not really the challenge any more. The challenge this time is that the tenth Doctor books have this immense audience. You can buy them in Asda, and they’ll be 3-for-2, front of house, at the major bookstores. With my previous books, I knew my name had a little capital—I could get away with stuff because I’d written Just War or The Infinity Doctors or whatever, so I was given the benefit of the doubt. This time, most of the people who read my book have no idea who I am, a lot will barely notice the author’s name. You’re not allowed old monsters or the sort of continuity in-jokes I love that half the audience won’t get, now.

With The Eyeless, I’ve got quite a straightforward story—15 years ago, a giant alien fortress arrived on an alien planet, killed everyone there. The Doctor arrives, determined to deactivate the Fortress, a sort of Guns of Navarone-type mission. The Doctor’s all on his own. It’s the sort of plot that would work on telly… But then, it’s a novel, so it ends up being quite introspective. There’s stuff beneath the surface. I’m hoping it works on two levels: action-adventure stuff, and plenty of it, but also if you’re looking, you’ll find plenty of stuff you’ve not been told directly.

The blog is there to drum up a little interest in the book, and to let me put some thoughts down about how I approach the art of writing. I’m… always a little suspicious of blogs. It’s a very efficient way to archive every passing thought and half-baked idea you have. Without wanting to sound pretentious—so warning: pretentiousness alert—the whole point of writing is to reflect and bake ideas until they’re done. Plus, I’ve never used emoticons, so I’m sure as hell not going to translate what I write into what I would say if I was a kitten sending a text message. I’ve said that this blog runs until Boxing Day, when The Eyeless comes out. After that, I’ll throw it open to comments and reviews, but basically step back.

Death Ray
Much (if not all) of your fiction has been ‘tie-in’ of some description. Is it OK to think of you as a ‘tie-in’ author? Do you think there’s some unnecessary prejudices concerning the value of tie-in fiction?

Lance Parkin
Most SF is derivative, and that’s its great strength and its great weakness. At its best, it means it’s postmodern and tapping into a vast wellspring. At its worst…well, go into Borders, particularly in America, and about half the SF shelves are taken up with ‘dark fantasy’ ranges that are just plain and simple knock-offs of Buffy, or if they’re very daring, it’s Angel or Spike. ‘Wednesday Raven is a gutsy young Los Angeles PI with a secret…she’s a vampire’. Those leave very little room for the supermarket own-brand Tolkien and third-generation Heinlein rip-offs, or the Harry Potterwannabes or the knackered old SF authors doing their 20th book set in the same universe as their big hit from years ago. I just don’t see the great artistic expression or nobility of purpose in doing any of that.

There are some great SF novels—just in the last year, just the ones I’ve read, just off the top of my head, there’s Matter, The H-Bomb Girl, Flood, The Red Men, The Night Sessions and I’m looking forwards to Anathem. But no-one’s fooling anyone that most SF novels are like that, or trying to be. The main ‘limitation’ of tie-in writing is exactly the same limitation as every other type of book—the ability of the individual authors. When you get someone like Sebastian Faulks writing a James Bond book or Michael Chabon doing a literary fiction Sherlock Holmes novella or Isabel Allende writing Zorro, you realise that all of these distinctions are pretty meaningless. If there really was a great divide, my ‘tie-in stuff’ would be on the same side as The Time Ships, and I’m happy with that.

Personally, the great thing with a Doctor Who book is…well, you know it’s actually coming out and people will actually read it, and you’ll get paid lots of money, which are all nice…but you know roughly what the readership is, that the readers know some of the cha racters, they know the set up, and you can just get straight in there with the story and start playing around with that. I’ve never encountered the mythical ‘studio exec’ who crushes my creative spirit. Usually, the licence-holder has either left me alone to develop things or they’re actively helpful in talking things through. They’re not sitting there going ‘we want these books to be dull’.

With Star Trek and Star Wars, the problems—for my money—come when they stray too far. Star Wars for me is Skywalkers deciding the fate of the universe, not some guy who in the background of one scene in one movie fighting generic space pirates. Tie-in writers get to play with icons, not just characters, and icons can take whatever one writer can throw at them. I’d love to write for Star Wars, I’d love to write for Star Trek, I’d love to write Supermanor Wonder Woman or the Teen Titans. I have a Hawk and Dove script on my computer.

I’m working on my own novels, too. As I do that, I’m using exactly the same parts of my brain I do when I’m writing tie-ins. In fact, the problem I had for years was thinking that I’d need to relearn how to write if I was going to do ‘proper’ books. As soon as I lost that hang-up, I came up with half a dozen ideas and started moving with them.

Death Ray

Pretty sensibly for BBC Wales, there’s now less freedom on a Doctor Who book than there once was. Are you feeling the pinch, creatively? Are you enjoying the new boundaries ? Or am I wrong?

Lance Parkin
This is the question I’ve been asked most, in one form or another. The assumption is there that they sent someone from Cardiff round and every time I typed a word, they tut-tutted and I had to rewrite it.

Doctor Who is clearly a multi-million pound industry now , they have all sorts of duties to the wider audience, and the readership of the books now includes a significant number of older children. And so I was expecting lots of interference. There wasn’t any. The commissioning process was the smoothest I’ve ever had—it took a day for Cardiff to approve the synopsis and all they changed was the title (from The Hidden Fortress to The Eyeless). I wrote the book, sent it in, dreaded getting a bowlderised version back… but the book I got back was exactly what I wrote, minus a joke about shoe sizes. A couple of references to exactly what the TARDIS defences and the sonic screwdriver could do had been made a bit more vague (literally it was ‘the TARDIS defences could’ to ‘perhaps the TARDIS defences could’). I deliberately didn’t try to tone or dumb anything down, I just wrote a Doctor Who book, like I’ve done (mumble) times before.

It’s the Doctor traveling without a companion, so I guess that means there’s less to go wrong—I didn’t get the chance to mess up Donna and the Doctor-Donna relationship, for example. Because it’s a standalone book, I didn’t have to alter or include anything because of the books around it. The Eyeless you’ll read is the book I wrote.

Death Ray

I can remember you pointing out—possibly on a Doctor Who forum—that the new series, out of which The Eyeless has been ‘spun’, owes as much to the ’90s and’00s novels as it does to the ’63-’89 TV series, and not just in terms of personnel. Could you flesh this out, a bit? How important were the books? What have they lent to the series?

Lance Parkin
I need to make it clear that Russell Davies is a brilliant writer of modern television, and he’d have come to most of the decisions he did quite independently of The New Adventures. But the thing is…he didn’t have to.The New Adventures stretched out a lot of the things you could do with the format, they killed the idea ‘you can’t do that in Doctor Who‘ and I guess you can learn a lot from the mistakes of the books, too.

To me, it’s pretty obvious that the new series is more ‘like’ the NAs than the old TV series. That’s not to demean or diminish the old TV series, but as well, there’s a lot more kissing and council estates and pop culture references, now. And the books meant that there was this ready-made team of other writers who just ‘got it’.

I think without the NAs, the show would have been like ‘The Unquiet Dead‘ every week. Now…don’t get me wrong, that would have been the best episode of the eighties, it has Simon Callow as a guest star, a really fun script and an incredible atmosphere. But it’s not got that freewheeling insanity the best episodes of the new series have. It’s a modern reconstruction of a traditional Doctor Who story, and compare and contrast it with the sheer energy and iconoclasm of ‘The Shakespeare Code‘.

Death Ray
While you’re not the most prolific of writers to make up Doctor Whostories (I guess that’s still Terrance Dicks for word count) your work certainly has the most breadth over its various properties, sub-properties and copyright-skirting ranges—Virgin, BBV, Mad Norwegian, Big Finish, BBC Books, Telos and Comeuppance have all had a Parkin at some point; some have had several. Was this a conscious ambition—to cover all the bases—or has it just happened that way by accident?

Lance Parkin
I was asked to write things for these guys, given lots of exciting opportunities. I wrote a nice little television script, Cyberon, for BBV. Warlords of Utopia is basically Mad Norwegian letting me write a standalone SF novel. I got to set up a lot of things with the first Time Hunter novella. This wasn’t some masterplan—and plenty of people have written for plenty of different companies. The great thing about theDoctor Who industry is that there are loads of opportunities and spins on the material.

Death Ray
Which brings us to the only gap in your Who CV: television. You worked on Emmerdale for a while, but soon departed for fiction and comics—did you find TV less alluring as a writer?

Lance Parkin
Ha! TV found me less alluring, I think. I had a pretty good run—two years—as a storyliner on Emmerdale: that means I was literally one of the people who sits in a room and says ‘those characters should get married’, ‘we should murder that character’. That was great fun, I learned so much about writing (particularly from Gareth Roberts, who I genuinely do think has a genius for television drama) and TV production and stuff. A little frustrating, of course, because with so many people involved, you never quite land the plane exactly where you want to. But I enjoyed it, loved working with those people.

I tried to move on to scriptwriting, and for a while it really looked like that was going to happen. Then it didn’t. And didn’t. And didn’t. One of theEmmerdale script writers warned me that writing for TV involves sitting around for years, waiting for them to get back to you, and by the time they do, you’ve lost interest in writing the thing you pitched. I went through that process—had an hour-long script in with Granada called Divided Kingdom, set in a Britain where the West had lost the Cold War—but never got to that crucial ‘they get back to you’ stage.

I’d love to write for the Doctor Who TV series, obviously. I’d love to write for Torchwood. My main ambition in that area, I think, is actually The Sarah Jane Adventures, which I adore. But I understand absolutely that it’s not easy, to the point that people who say they could do better inevitably end up looking foolish. The more you know about television production, the more amazed you become that anything ever gets made. I’d be interested in doing it precisely for the challenge of doing it as well as they’re doing it already. The fact of the matter is that there’s a great big pool of TV professionals who’ve created their own shows and want to write for Doctor Who, and there’s no reason for me to be on that list.

Death Ray

I hate to bring it up, knowing it’s proved a bit of a publishing cul-de-sac, but I’ve seen the pretty promising art (if puzzling, without speech) intended for issue four of your Miranda comic. Given that she’s been killed off in a novel (Justin Richards’s Sometime Never…), and we’ll likely never see the end of the comic, will we ever see the end of that particular story, albeit in another medium?

Lance Parkin
That’s probably gone cold. I love the character Allan Bednar and I created, I’d love to finish it as a comic, write a novel. Back in 2002, I remember us sitting around and going ‘there’s this actress called Keira Knightley who’d make a great Miranda when they do the movie’. It would make a great movie. ‘Ordinary Earthgirl discovers she’ s Supreme Empress of the Universe’. Nine word pitch, hundred million dollar opening weekend.

There was so much cool stuff in those last three issues, too—the last vampires, who’d survived by becoming great armoured Darth Vader things. An evil Chris Evans lookalike whizzkid genius with the ultimate computer mind, whose name was Vic 20. The final panel was going to be Miranda, finally crowned Empress, sat on her vast throne, all alone.

We shopped it around, but it was a black and white science fiction comic with a female protagonist. That’s three strikes against it. The economics of making and distributing a comic mean it only really works if the writer and artist don’t get paid. Not always then, as it turned out. If anyone can work out a way to do it please get in touch.

Death Ray
The Eyeless is coming out as part of a triad of books with a Gary Russell and a Dan Abnett. Do you work together in any way, or is it all mediated by the editor at the BBC (I guess, Justin Richards)?

Lance Parkin
The Doctor Who books are all standalones, now. The December ones are even more standalone than normal—there’s a Martha book, a Donna book and mine, where the Doctor doesn’t have anyone traveling with him. So there was no real need to co-ordinate. Justin let slip that Gary was writing a Donna book in the same batch, but to be honest, I think I only found out about The Book of Martha when it was officially announced.

Personally, I would like more of an ‘ongoing’ story, like The New Adventures and Eighth Doctor books…but the downside of that is it would mean The Eyeless was the thirtieth of a series, and so some people would be reluctant or unsure if they could buy it, or wouldn’t get around to reading it for ages.

Reluctantly, I have to admit that the BBC have made the right choice. I’ve got unspoken ambitions to write all three books in a batch one day, link them up, do a sort of ‘mini season’.

Artistically, it’s useful if all the authors have read all the books—give or take, anyway. It helps me because I could have an opinion about what works, what doesn’t. What the range needs more of, what it needs less of. The great strength of the NAs—missing from every other range—is that it was pretty much all the authors arguing with each other, in the sense that the books would react to and against each other, the pendulum would swing. The readers have that kind of energetic, invested, often confrontational, relationship with the books, and the authors should, too.

Death Ray

A final word on your position as the Whoniverse’s unofficial historian, (Lance keeps an ongoing log of all events in Doctor Who and its spin-offs for occasional publication). Does your stewardship of the history of the entire universe—and all its alternative cousins—cramp your style when you have to actually write a new portion of it?

Lance Parkin
I try to keep those as separate hats, and did sort of deliberately make The Infinity Doctors and Trading Futures difficult to date to annoy myself further down the line. There are Doctor Who authors like Justin Richards and Gary Russell whose knowledge of the show makes mine look like the back of a postcard. My day job as a Doctor Who author is to tell a great story, my job as compiler of Ahistory is to put all the great stories in some sort of chronological order. It shouldn’t cramp anyone’s style, least of all mine!

Doctor Who: The Eyeless is in theory available from Boxing Day, but it’s probably in a few good bookshops already.

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