Sunday, 30 May 2010
Justin Richards Interview
Few writers have been as influential as Justin Richards in the world of Doctor Who novels. Contributing 22 original novels and 8 non fiction books, 7 Big Finish audios and acting as creative consultant on the eighth Doctor and past Doctor ranges and the phenomenally popular New Series Adventures, he is the all round most experienced and significant figure for Doctor Who in print for the past 9 years. An extremely versatile writer, his books weave through a variety of genres from horror (Theatre of War, Grave Matter, The Burning, The Deviant Strain), comedy (The Joy Device, Demontage), mindbenders (The Sands of Time, The Medusa Effect, Time Zero, Sometime Never…), SF (Tears of the Oracle, Dreams of Empire, System and Millennium Shock, Martha in the Mirror) and a dash of history too (Shadow in the Glass, The Banquo Legacy, The Clockwise Man). Known for his twisting storylines, dramatic prose, quotable dialogue and spot on characterisation of any of his chosen regulars, Richards is one of the series most talented and prolific storytelling voices.
Justin, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
How did you become involved with writing Doctor Who novels?
Many years ago, when even Rassilon was young, I sent a proposal for a Doctor Who book to Virgin Publishing, who published the Doctor Who New Adventures series. I’d done quite a bit of writing already – articles for Doctor Who Monthly, as it was then, as well as lots of fanzine stuff – and I was working as a technical writer for IBM. So I guess I knew how to write. Peter Darvill-Evans at Virgin, who gave so many writers their first break into fiction and novels, liked the proposal and my sample chapters and commissioned me to write the book. That was my first Who novel, called Theatre of War and it was published in 1994.
Theatre of War was a haunting first novel with a very strong role for Bernice. Was this something you wanted to concentrate on? This book is almost a blueprint for the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures; Virgin losing the Doctor Who licence did not occur for many years after this novel was published, how did so many elements of Theatre of War wind up driving that series?
I wrote the proposal soon after Bernice was announced as a new companion. It struck me that if I came up with a story that actually played to the strengths of the new companion that had to be a good thing and would get me some attention. I didn’t want Benny to end up like so many companions who have a notional career or expertise which is then just ignored, especially as there are so many narrative possibilities for an archaeologist. Whether Theatre of War prompted other writers to think along those same lines, I don’t know. But I wanted to tell a story where Benny didn’t just get to do a bit of digging things up, but her expertise and experience are actually key to the story’s development...
The character of Braxiatel seemed to catch on quite well too – the Doctor’s ‘Mycroft Holmes’ is how I thought of him. I guess as this was a fairly early Benny story, the two were thought of together, which is maybe why Virgin wanted to bring him back – almost as a proto-Doctor figure, I guess – when Benny went her own way.
Then, when I wrote what I was told was absolutely definitely the last ever Benny book, it seemed like a good idea to bring things full circle. Since the Benny NAs were set before Theatre of War in terms of the date, I could end the series with Braxiatel setting up the place where he and Benny first meet for the readers and Benny, even though it hasn’t happened yet.
And then it turned out that wasn’t the last of Benny’s adventures by any means. For the last three Virgin books she was already there at the Braxiatel Collection, and when I helped set up the Big Finish series with The Doomsday Manuscript, I was happy to keep her there as a base. It seemed to work for the narrative and give lots of story possibilities, and from a practical, lazy point of view it saved me having to think of anything different and new!
Interestingly you did not writer again for the New Adventures but instead concentrated on a number of Missing Adventures. Were you more interested in telling the stories of the previous Doctor’s at the time?
That was partly because Rebecca Levene, the editor at the time, asked me to pitch for Missing Adventures if I wanted a commission in the timescale I was looking at, partly because I fancied just doing one of each to start with, and partly it was laziness. To do another NA, at the time when the books were becoming increasingly interlinked and interdependent, I’d have had to read all the other books!
That sounds awful. But it’s just logistics – I’d have had to read those books quicker and more closely than I did. For work, not for fun. I didn’t have time to commit to reading them and writing my own book in the schedule allotted.
Given its influences on The Sands of Time, what is your opinion of Pyramids of Mars?
I love it, not surprisingly. I think the ending is a bit of a get-out, and the last episode goes off into a different sort of story in many ways. But the first three episodes are exemplary. I admire the way the Egyptian mythology – or the popular perceptions of it – and the Hammer references are all bound up into something new that is also uniquely Doctor Who. Clever, frightening, and satisfying all at once...
Do you like the cover of System Shock, as far as I am aware the only computer generated cover of the range?
It probably is, yes. Of course all the covers are done with Photoshop or InDesign or whatever now – but that’s largely manipulating images that already exist rather than creating them from scratch. It was a bit different, and I thought very good. Martin Rawle is a talented artist and designer, and that was near the start of his career when he happened to be doing some work for my brother’s media company...
You wrote four novels for the Bernice Summerfield range over the space of three years. What is your opinion of the range looking back? Do you have a favourite of the four you contributed?
I’m very proud of all four of those books, for different reasons. I really enjoyed writing for the range – it had such potential and it’s a shame it never really realised that potential commercially.
I like the intricate plotting of Dragons’ Wrath. I enjoyed playing about with the readers’ expectations as well as tricks like having an unreliable narrator. Despite the fact that most reviewers seem to think the plot is watertight and really clever, it does have the biggest cheat in any of my books – and as far as I know no one’s noticed! I’m in two minds whether to mention it now, or see if anyone ever does spot it... Also, having got away with telling the readers the main twist of Theatre of War in the first sentence of the book, it was fun to go one better this time and put it in the title. (If you still don’t see it, check where the apostrophe is! Yes – there’s more than one dragon...)
The Medusa Effect was fun, and was my take on a book called Ghostboat, which has since been made into a TV mini-series with David Jason. That was set on a submarine, and I moved it to spaceship. Of course, the story ended up being very different, but Ghostboat was one of my starting points. The other was the haunted house at Disneyland – where there’s a ballroom, and you see people dancing. As you watch they turn into skeletons.
Tears of the Oracle was great fun to do. As it was the last ever Benny book, or so they assured me, I got to tie up as many loose ends as possible and make it all look planned and deliberate – which a lot of it wasn’t. But pulling together strands from however many books over the course of the NAs was an interesting challenge. Especially as the previous couple of books hadn’t actually been written yet. Lawrence Miles kindly posted me printouts of some bits of Dead Romance so I could link into Cwej’s regeneration properly.
And The Joy Device was a bit of a rush job when Virgin suddenly decided to do another ‘last 3’ Benny books. It’s no secret that I didn’t actually want to do it – though I’m glad I did as it was fun, and it was nice to write something a bit ‘lighter’ after Tears of the Oracle. Peter Darvill-Evans asked me to do the book in about a month, and I said I really wasn’t sure I could because the only idea I has was about Benny going on holiday and her friends all being worried she’d have such a great time she might not come back – so they have to make it the most boring and uneventful holiday ever. I told him I thought it would make a good short story, but probably wouldn’t sustain a whole novel. I guess it’s a measure of how desperate they were that Peter emailed me back within minutes saying: ‘Brilliant, and you could also do this, this, and thins... The contracts are in the post.’ So I had to work out an outline after getting the job.
Sarah Jane, Harry, Tegan, Nyssa, Jamie, Victoria, Peri, the Brigadier…you had the opportunity to play about with some of the Doctor’s best companions. Which were particularly fun to write and did you feel there were any companions that translated especially well into print? Speaking as editor/creative consultant were there any companions you were eager to include in the range and explore in more depth?
Oh I loved writing for them all, actually. There’s a great satisfaction in taking a character everyone knows really well – like Sarah Jane, the Brigadier, or Jamie. But equally, it’s good to take a character people know less well and explore them a bit –bring them to life more – like Victoria or Harry.
You made a real impact on the parent range when the 8th Doctor lost his memory and kicked off his recovery memorably in the spine chilling historical The Burning. What were your aims with this radical re-interpretation of the character? How do you think the theme of the Doctor’s mysterious past was handled over the next five years? Can you cite any particular examples where you felt the Doctor you were trying to create really flourished?
I think the ones that work best are those first few books where the Doctor is trapped on earth, not knowing who he really is. Especially as the character and his situation are such a contrast to the epic scale and events of The Ancestor Cell. Really what i was trying to do was to make it all rather more personal, and to get away from the mass of continuity and narrative baggage that had built up in the books over the years. It’s no one’s fault that this happens – it just does. And as soon as we ‘reset’ everything, we started building it up again! Typically, on TV, a regeneration has a similar effect – everything’s renewed and revitalised. Finding a way to do that in the novels without being able – or allowed – to regenerate the Doctor was a challenge. And in The Burning, I got to write the first ever Doctor Who story. Sort of. How great is that?!
You seemed quite keen to keep hold of Fitz in the range. Can you explain something of his universal appeal? Anji is a personal favourite of mine although I know she had some mixed reviews at the time, how do you feel she worked out? Trix was just hitting her stride when the series ended, do you regret not getting a chance to tell more stories with this identity shifting companion?
I agree that Trix still has a lot of potential we’ve not tapped into. It would be great to go back and do more with her and Fitz. It’s nice to see – or rather hear – Fitz appearing on Big Finish audios now too.
Developing a companion is harder than most people might think. An awful lot of effort went into Fitz – for which i can take almost no credit. He sprang fully formed from the notes and sample prose prepared by Rebecca Levene and Steve Cole, and was fleshed out fully by Mike Collier in The Taint. To be honest, he was so well defined that I didn’t realise until I’d just about finished writing it that Demontage was only his second story. It just seemed like there must be a lot more about him for the character to be so well defined...
Anji worked well – the brief I gave Colin Brake was fairly open. So most of Anji’s character, certainly at the detail level and including her name and background came from him. I wanted a young modern day professional woman – who might reflect the job background and age of much of the readership. I think she worked out very well, though she tends to be a bit overshadowed by Fitz simply because he was there for longer...
Time Zero and Sometime Never… are both very important novels in the 8th Doctor range, dealing with some very complex ideas. Can you tell us something about these two event novels? Am I correct in thinking Sometime Never… replaced your original plan for the Sabbath arc when the Daleks had to be pulled as the Sabbath’s employers? How do you think these novels hold up now?
Yes, my original plan was that the Daleks would be the villains behind Sabbath – hence all the references to the black eye. That would be a Dalek eye stalk. But I didn’t get even as far as outlining the book before it was apparent that we wouldn’t be able to use the Daleks. So I had to come up with a different set of villains and I decided on Time itself. How do you fight that? Surely it’s the ultimate enemy for the Doctor..? Of course, that needed personifying so it wasn’t just some nebulous insubstantial ‘thing’. And so I developed the villains as sort of negative Time Lords – they do nothing but interfere, and try to align History to their own ends. To take that further, each of the Council of Eight was an inverse-Doctor, and took their names from the Doctor they were shadowing – Like Singleton for the First Doctor, and ‘Fear’ (the German Vier) for the Fourth, and Octet as the Big Villain pitched against our own current Doctor.
I think both those books work well, though – by their nature almost – both are rather more complicated than they should be. Time Zero probably holds up better as it’s less mired in the ongoing story arc and the mythos of Doctor Who as a whole. But they were both great fun to write.
The alternative universe arc cam under some heavy criticism from fans for its relentless plotting and stretched out storyline. Do you think the run from Time Zero-Timeless would have run better with one novel a month?
Yes, it would. And that’s how it was planned. At a novel every other month it did outstay its welcome and the whole arc lost momentum. Just one of those things, I’m afraid and there was nothing we could do about that once the decision had been taken to cut back the number of novels.
Festival of Death, Rags, Ten Little Aliens, Heritage, The Eleventh Tiger, The Algebra of Ice, Fear itself…there were some fine Past Doctor Adventures published under your consultancy. How much impact would you have on the books? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted with each book and would the authors often surprise you with their work?
Each and every book was different in terms of how it came about and was developed. It’s fair to say that the Past Doctors novels tended to be less ‘briefed’ by me than the EDAs which had to fit into an ongoing story and make thematic sense.
To take some of the specific books you mention, for Ten Little Aliens I specifically asked Steve Cole for a First Doctor Agatha Christie in space, and he developed it from there – including the adventure game aspects which were all his idea. At the other end of the scale, Festival of Death was an unsolicited proposal from Jonny Morris which I commissioned pretty much as it was. There was the usual editorial haggling, and I think I suggested a couple of ways the story could be simplified and made a little more elegant, but that really was a brilliant book despite me being there rather than because of me.
In no particular order could you name ten novels you are especially proud of under your consultancy and why.
Oh no, I don’t think that would be fair at all. There are no books in that run – well, to date! – that I am not proud of to a greater or lesser degree. Some have been less well received. Some had problems all of their own, and often not of the author’s making... But then again, good novels can come out of the challenges and adversities that such a strict and testing schedule throws up. To use some of my own books as example, Millennium Shock was written to plug a sudden gap in less than three weeks, and it shows. But under the circumstances, I’m very proud of that book. And having written it, I was better able to organise both The Shadow in the Glass and The Banquo Legacy to cope with similar problems. If nothing else, I’d learned to get some help! (Though that wasn’t an option with Millennium Shock actually as the timing was so tight it had to be a single author deal...)
Moving on to the New Series Adventures, is it more of a challenge writer the slimmer, more child friendly novels, having to inject all the imagination and plotting into a tighter word count? The novels seem to have found a new sense of joy since they have switched to the hardbacks, is that more to do with the younger audience for the books or because they match the ethos of the television series?
I’m not sure it’s more of a challenge so much as a different set of challenges. But you’re right about the ‘joy’ aspect. In that we try to reflect the generally upbeat tone of the TV series. With fewer novels, there’s less space to slip in a ‘dark’ one without affecting the overall feel of the series, so if they have a weakness it’s probably a similarity of tone and approach. I don’t think aiming at the younger audience has mean the books have suffered, except they are shorter and therefore less complex stories.
Looking back over 12 years of writing Doctor Who books can you name the one book you would hold up as the best example of your work, and the one book you would like to go back and have another stab at?
Given the chance – and a working TARDIS – I’d go back and tweak, if not completely rewrite, all my books! It’s difficult to pick out any that I would describe as ‘best’. I like them all, for different reasons. There are some that I think have not been as well received as they deserve – Demontage, for example... I guess the one I’d like to rewrite as I originally conceived it would be Option Lock, which was originally a werewolf story that explained why the 8th Doctor had to be half human – a conscious decision the 7th Doctor had made and ‘filed away’ for when he next regenerated... But it was not to be. Option Lock was at one point going to be the first EDA after The Eight Doctors, so that would have made perfect sense. But by the time it came out everyone had decided to ignore the half human thing, and Kursaal – with werewolves – was the EDA immediately before it!
Of my New Series novels, I think The Resurrection Casket and Martha in the Mirror work best. Too early to tell about Apollo 23, I think – ask me in a year! But The Clockwise Man is a little too complicated for what it’s trying to do, and The Deviant Strain, while I very much like the ending with Valeria and Jack, is too edgy and brutal to sit easily in the new series... Another one done in a hurry when – surprise, surprise – the new series was a success and the books sold well and suddenly the people who only wanted three new series novels decided they’d like another three to be ready for publication in a few months time! I had a rather worrying few days after that when it looked like I would have to write all three! Thank goodness I didn’t and we got the fantastic Only Human and Stealers of Dreams.
What can we look forward to in the future? Dare I ask the questions of Past Doctor Adventures that seems to be on everybody’s lips?
Obviously I can’t announce definite future plans. But I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d like to be able to publish Past Doctor novels again. I’m still hopeful that will happen soon - though perhaps not in the way that people expect. As ever with Doctor Who, these are exciting times!
Justin, thank you so much for your time.