Friday, 27 November 2009

Steve Lyons Q & A

It is unsurprising that Steve Lyons books stand out at the top of Doctor Who novel polls; his work is widely recognised as being extremely polished, well written and having lots to say about the period they are written. He made an instant name for himself with the wickedly clever and funny Conundrum, following that up with the bitingly satirical Head Games. Time of Your Life and Killing Ground were both viciously dramatic books with a refreshingly nasty take on the sixth Doctor. His work for BBC Books proved he hadn’t lost his bite, The Witch Hunters and The Crooked World are widely considered the best of their respective ranges. Playing against the cuddly beginnings of the range, Steve wrote a clever and intelligent New Series Adventure with some superb twists. His non fiction books have proven a great success too, I laughed myself silly with his Completely Useless Encyclopaedia (and the Star Trek one was hilarious too!) and the Red Dwarf and Blackadder guides were informative and great fun too. Proving that no media can beat him, he has conquered the world of Big Finish audios too giving us a Bonnie Langford story that is truly dramatic, a chilling vampire tale and kick started the eighth Doctor audio adventures on BBC7 with some considerable style too.

Steve, thank you so much for your time.

How did you come to be involved with the New Adventures? Were you reading them yourself? You got to tackle the infamous New Ace in your first book, was this a hindrance to your novel or did you find that her emotional state worked well within the confines of the book?
Yeah, I was reading the New Adventures, though I was submitting proposals for them even before the first one came out.

I was never a great fan of New Ace, to be honest, but she certainly wasn’t a hindrance to my book. As I remember it, Peter Darvill-Evans wanted to resolve the animosity between Ace, Bernice and the Doctor by the end of ‘No Future’, the novel after mine, and we talked about how that was all going to pan out, so I ended up with quite a clear direction in which to take the character, which is always nice.

Head Games has come in for some strong criticism in the past but in the wake of the New Adventures it seems to have developed a far more positive reaction. There are so many questions I would like to ask about this novel…what were your aims in writing this one? What was the purpose of brining Mel back, to highlight the changes that have occurred since the NAs began or to condemn them? What on Earth is going on inside the Doctor’s head? Is the sixth Doctor really chained up in there…or are these the current Doctor’s fictional delusions?
‘Head Games’ was my one big ‘continuity agenda’ book. I suppose it’s something that most writers who are also fans have to get out of their systems! It was actually reviewed pretty well when it first came out – but then fandom got it into its collective head that all continuity was bad and had destroyed the TV series, and I watched ‘Head Games’ plummeting in the online polls. As you say, it’s had a bit of a resurgence over the past few years, perhaps because the new series has proved that you can use continuity without alienating your audience.
I certainly didn’t want to condemn the changes that had taken place in the New Adventures. I just thought it would be interesting to see how Mel reacted to their version of the Doctor, given that he had become so different to any version we’d seen on TV. The other companions in that book represent a range of other opinions, with Roz Forrester being the most supportive of the NA Doctor and Benny being somewhere in the middle. Myself, I tried not take sides.

As for what’s happening in the Doctor’s head, you’ll have to ask Paul Cornell about that one because I was really just following his lead from ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’. Personally, no, I don’t think his other selves are literally running around in there, just that sometimes it must feel like that to him.

Given both books influences, what are your thoughts on The Mind Robber?
Not surprisingly, I love ‘The Mind Robber’. It was one of the first black and white Doctor Who stories I ever saw, back at a Local Group meeting in 1987, and it’s really stuck with me. I like it when Doctor Who tries to do something a bit different.

Tells us something about your opinion of the sixth Doctor. Time of Your Life has been described as paranoid, toxic and disturbing, showing the bloody consequences of travel with the 6th Doctor. Is that a fair assessment? Did you have a statement to make with this book? Killing Ground feels much more grounded, a dramatic take on the Cybermen and introducing Grant Markham to the mainstream audience. Did you have fun with these two elements?
That is probably a fair assessment. I always liked the idea of the Sixth Doctor’s character, the whole unstable regeneration thing, but I was frustrated by the way it was handled. I’ve no problem with the Sixth Doctor, for example, pushing someone into an acid bath, but it would be nice if the series – probably through the voice of Peri – had actually questioned such actions rather than appearing to support them.

So, yeah, I very much wanted to explore that whole issue of the Sixth Doctor’s violent streak, and that just naturally gelled with the meta-issue of television violence that reared its head again during Season Twenty-Two, and that was my starting point for ‘Time of Your Life’.
I originally proposed ‘Time of Your Life’ as an introductory book for Mel, but Rebecca Levene wasn’t keen on doing that, I can’t remember why, and she suggested giving the Doctor a new companion instead, which of course I was delighted to do – and yes, I did enjoy having the chance to flesh out Grant Markham a bit by taking him home in ‘Killing Ground’.

The Cybermen are my favourite monsters, and I really wanted a crack at writing them, although I waited to get three books under my belt before I dared suggest that to Virgin. I wanted to really look at this idea of their converting human beings into monsters like themselves, as at that point it hadn’t been explored much on screen.

Jumping ahead to the Past Doctor Adventures, were the authors involved in the Virgin range asked to contribute or was it submission time again?
A bit of both. The BBC wrote to the Virgin authors asking us to send in submissions. I sent two – one cyber-punky New Adventures type novel and one very traditional Target-style novel, because I didn’t know which direction the BBC were going to jump in. They turned down the former, and accepted the latter, which became ‘ The Murder Game’.

The Witch Hunters is an extremely popular book. Are you happy with how it turned out and public reaction? Was it hard to write such a tense and fatalistic book? Was it easy to translate the characters of the first Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan to print?

Yes, I’m very pleased with the way ‘The Witch Hunters’ turned out, and with the reaction to it. If ever there was One Book I Always Wanted to Write, ‘The Witch Hunters’ is it. I’d actually submitted it three times to Virgin – twice as a New Adventure and once as a Past Doctor Adventure in pretty much the same form that it eventually saw print – and I’d had it rejected three times, but remained convinced that it would work. In the end, it was a very good thing that I got to write it as my sixth novel rather than my first, because it was a difficult one to write and it helped that I had some experience by then. It wasn’t so much the fatalism that made it hard, more the sheer depth of the historical detail that I had to deal with. Unlike, say, the last days of Pompeii, we know so much about what went on in Salem in 1692 that I was terrified of writing almost anything in case I got it wrong! Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t go two sentences without having to get out a book and look up some odd detail.

The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan on the other hand were a gift. I found them some of the easiest Doctor Who characters to capture in print because their characters are so well-defined on screen.

Was The Murder Game a specific attempt to write a lighter novel? Are Polly and Ben hopelessly in love? You wrote the introduction of Dodo to the range not long after Daniel O’Mahony and David Bishop finished her off…do you think the books are a good way of fleshing out the lesser liked companions? Which were your favourite set of regulars to write for?
‘The Murder Game’, as I mentioned above, was an attempt to write more of a Target book style novel, something that I could imagine having been a TV serial in the 60s (It’s a five-parter, with cliffhangers at the end of every third chapter). I wanted to do that partly as a reaction to the Virgin policy of rejecting anything that ‘could have been done on TV’. The whole rad/trad debate was in full swing, then, and it did feel as if a lot of people had turned away from the books because they didn’t remind them all that much of Doctor Who on the telly. I wanted to write a book that did. Oh, and because Paul Cornell had said it would be impossible to do a Troughton base under siege story in the 90s, and I wanted to prove him wrong!

A lot of Doctor Who writers like to write for their favourite Doctor/companion teams. I prefer to write for those characters who perhaps never had their full potential tapped on TV – like Dodo, yes, and also Mel and the Sixth Doctor. I think those untapped characters can give you a lot more scope for doing something new. Having said that, I wanted to write Ben and Polly too, because they are my favourite companions. I zeroed in on the issue of their feelings for each other because it’s something about which there had been a lot of speculation, but that the TV series in the sixties would never have tackled.

I think Ben and Polly probably had a bit of a fling after leaving the TARDIS, but unlike Ian and Barbara for some reason I don’t think I see them ending up together in the long term.

You had the opportunity to write for the pre and post amnesiac eighth Doctor. Which appealed to you more? Fitz and Compassion or Fitz and Anji? The Crooked World was a great chance to tell a fun and poignant standalone story…can you tell us something about how this memorable novel came about.
I came into the post-amnesiac Eighth Doctor arc a bit late, so the amnesia itself wasn’t really an issue by then and I treated him as more or less the same character he had been in ‘The Space Age’, maybe a little more sombre. I’d choose Fitz and Anji over Fitz and Compassion because, while Compassion was certainly a brave attempt at doing something different, I didn’t feel that we had much to go on with her, character-wise. There was also that danger of her becoming a walking deus ex machine. Oh, and her entire story arc changed while I was writing ‘The Space Age’, but no one thought to tell me. Originally, Compassion was meant to become gradually less human and more TARDIS-like over the course of several books, which is why she spends half of ‘The Space Age’ just standing around, staring into space. Anji was a more rounded character, and she was perfect for ‘The Crooked World’ because I could have her desperately trying to apply her logic to the crazy situation around her.

‘The Crooked World’ was born on a panel at a Gallifrey convention in LA. For some reason, I was talking about Scooby-Doo, and Justin Richards said he’d be interested in a novel in which the Doctor and Scooby-Doo met. At first, the idea was to bring Scooby-type characters into the Doctor’s world somehow, but after thinking about this for a while I realised that I was more interested in doing the opposite. I’d recently seen the film Pleasantville, and loved the premise but had some issues with the execution, and with the moral that the film was pushing. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to tell a story with similar themes but to tell it the way that I thought it should be told.

The Stealers of Dreams dealt with some weighty issues for its target audience. Were you determined not to dumb down your novel? Are you proud to be one of very few authors to tackle the bovver boy ninth Doctor? Looking back on Russell T Davies’ tenure what do you think were the strengths and weaknesses to his approach?
I wasn’t asked to dumb down ‘The Stealers of Dreams’, so I didn’t. However, the New Series Adventures are a lot shorter than their predecessors, so obviously there isn’t room for them to be as ‘broad and deep’ as the Who books used to be. A New Adventures version of ‘The Stealers of Dreams’ would have four or five more characters in it, and I’d have had to have found other aspects of the planet’s society to explore. Whether that would have enhanced the novel or whether it would just have been padding, I’m not sure…

I am very pleased to have written the Ninth Doctor, if only to complete the set! I wouldn’t mind another crack at him, actually, now that I know the character better. I had to start writing ‘The Stealers of Dreams’ after seeing only the first episode of the new series, so I really had to work on the regular characters as I went along, going back and rewriting their dialogue after each new episode aired.

Looking back on Russell T Davies’s tenure... I like the energy of it and the fact that it commits so whole-heartedly to the big ideas. We could easily have had a version of Doctor Who that kept the monsters off-screen, and in fact this was what I was expecting in 2005 (that’s why there are no visible monsters in ‘The Stealers of Dreams’!). I would like to see a bit more attention paid to the actual story, though, rather than just to the visuals – and especially to those plot resolutions!

Which of your novels would you hold up as the best example of your work? Alternatively which one do you think could do with another draft?
I think ‘The Crooked World’ is my best work. ‘The Witch Hunters’ has had a slightly better reception, but then I think that one gets a lift from being about real people. The book most in need of another draft is ‘Time of Your Life’, which needs to have a few characters cut from it, although I would like another pass at ‘Head Games’ too.

You have become quite prolific with your Big Finish audios with eight under your belt. Do you have any favourites of those you have written and why? The spin off series Sapphire and Steel and Gallifrey are such a blast…which was your favourite to write for? Is it true you were less than enthused when you heard the results of Colditz? Are you excited about the return of Klein to the series? Can you tell us something of the difference between approaching a novel and approaching an audio?
‘Son of the Dragon’, I think, is probably the best of my Doctor Who audios, though I’m still very fond of ‘The Fires of Vulcan’. My favourite Big Finish series to write for has been Sapphire & Steel. I’m not sure why, I just always loved that show and there’s something about the rhythm of the characters’ dialogue that appeals to my ear.

It is true that I was less than happy with certain elements of ‘Colditz’, and I really wish it had been sent back to the sound designers for just a few elements to be fixed before it was released. However, we did get the wonderful Tracey Childs playing Klein, and I’m really excited about her return. It’s something we’ve talked about several times over the past ten years and it’s never happened for one reason or another. I had just about accepted that it never would when suddenly we were back in the studio.

Writing an audio feels like a more concentrated process than writing a novel. You have far fewer words in which to tell the story, and you have to do it all in dialogue and sound effects, so you’re trying to do a lot of work with each line. I do enjoy writing audio scripts, though – I didn’t think I would at first, because as a novelist I was used to being my own director and cast, and I was nervous about handing over control of those elements. There’s something very wonderful, though, about hearing your script being brought to life by somebody else.

What can we look forward to in the future Steve?
I’m busy with my third Warhammer novel at the moment. Doctor Who-wise, I’ve been writing for the Doctor Who Adventures comic strip, which is a medium I love. There’s also my Klein audio, of course, which is out in March next year. It’s called ‘The Architects of History’, and as well as featuring Klein it also contains the Big Finish debut of a certain element from my novels…

Thank you again for your time.
No problem.

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