Edited to add: the rest of the Frontier Worlds information on this site is now here.
I found another interview that I did. This is from 2000, when Kevin Mahoney of authortrek.com was talking to me about my Doctor Who novels. At this stage, I had written The Ancestor Cell, but it was not due to be published until the following year – so you should be able to detect some not-so-subtle plugging for that.
As further context, it’s worth noting that this interview was conducted five years before the new series of Doctor Who relaunched with Christopher Eccleston in the title role. Note how I say things like “if the series comes back” and talk about the novel of Human Nature, long before it became a TV story.
Q: There seems to be a whole difference of tone between Kursaal and Frontier Worlds. In comparison with the latter, Kursaal seems to be quite constrained. It’s a trend which appears to have affected Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum also – their recent Unnatural History is far more fun than Vampire Science. Were the tones of these novels affected by contemporaneous editorial decisions?
A: To keep myself interested when writing, I try to make each thing I write a bit different from the other stuff – whether it’s a piece of short fiction or a novel. Both Kursaal and Frontier Worlds were edited by Steve Cole, but at different times in the BBC Books range’s history. When I wrote Kursaal, I had to adapt my original proposal to accommodate the new companion, Sam.
When I was commissioned to do one of the linked series of 1999 books, it was with full knowledge of how the main characters were developing. I’m not sure whether that means Kursaal was less constrained, because it was conceived originally as completely standalone (and then worked in some of Sam’s development leading in to Longest Day), or whether Frontier Worlds was more constrained because I already knew where the characters had to end up.
Q: You must have fshed around for a lot of the jokes in Frontier Worlds (as in “What do you call a fish with no eyes?”). Fitz cutting wires in his apartment reminds me greatly of Del Boy’s famous encounter with a chandelier in Only Fools and Horses. Why did you decide to increase the joke content?
A: I happily stole the fsh joke from the back cover of one of Steve Cole’s books. One of his other things for BBC Worldwide, this was a joke book for a kids’ magazine, and that was my son’s favourite joke in it.
I first heard the chandelier story long before the Only Fools and Horses thing (which I’d forgotten until one of my read-through team commented on it). When I heard the story, it was about a paranoid spy in the British Embassy in Moscow. I suppose I wasn’t consciously increasing the humour content, but as a lot of Frontier Worlds is seen through Fitz’s eyes, maybe that’s why it turned out that way. I took out a lot in the final draft, mostly scatalogical jokes in very poor taste.
There are probably fewer jokes in The Ancestor Cell (and no fart gags).
Q: In many ways, Frontier Worlds seems to be quite reminiscent of the classic Who serial The Seeds of Doom. There’s a huge plant which likes to turn humans into its kind, an evil capitalist or two, and there’s a scene where the Doctor kicks someone in the head, quite like Tom Baker thumping the chauffeur in Seeds. Was this a deliberate homage?
A: Some people have seen parallels with Seeds of Doom, and I suppose it’s a helpful shorthand for reviewers. That wasn’t my plan. The book started out more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and as the idea developed the Raab became more of a background to the humanoid characters’ actions and motivations. Does the Raab turn them into its own kind? I debated the “kick in the head” with the editors, who originally felt it was a bit out of character for the Doctor. I persuaded them that it gave him more “edge,” given what he’s been put through. He’s not always fluffy touchy-feely.
Q: The beginning of Frontier Worlds also feels like a Bond movie. The Doctor and Fitz are pursued by goons on skis, and there’s even some red fish eyes. Was that an effect you wanted to achieve?
A: There’s a scene where Fitz is chased through a field, too, but that doesn’t make it North by Northwest 🙂 I wanted there to be action sequences, certainly, because I see the Eighth Doctor as being physically capable and resourceful.
Most of all, I wanted to start the book in the middle of some big event, rather than “TARDIS lands and then…” which I’d already done in Kursaal.
I do enjoy Bond movies, but I wasn’t playing any soundtracks when writing. And I don’t remember the red fish eyes!
Q: Prior to Frontier Worlds, I’d never really liked Fitz. He just seemed to be a little too lifeless, and prone to being kidnapped and brainwashed. But your use of the first person for his narrative really made me identify with him for the first time. Did you feel the need to boost his characterisation?
A: Thank you. In previous books, there hadn’t been much Fitz-and-Compassion-together stuff, so that was an important part of Frontier Worlds for me, so see how they did (and didn’t) get on together, with Fitz as unreliable narrator. I wanted to restrict the number of points of view in the book, to focus it on a couple of people’s reactions (mostly Fitz and the Doctor), though occasionally it was difficult or impossible to restrict it to them, so I used Compassion (tricky) and Sempiter sometimes.
The fun parts of Fitz for me were (a) reluctant hero, (b) would-be con man and (c) 1960s England. And with first-person, one can be a bit more outrageous with the commentary, because it’s the character who’s being a smartarse, and not the author.
A: One critique I’ve heard of Frontier Worlds was that it was too “political.” Stephen Cole, in his introduction to Lawrence Miles’ Interference, also referred to that novel as “political.” How far can politics be brought into Doctor Who books? A lot of your Doctor Who fiction seems to share an environmental theme. Kursaal is a planet threatened with the destructive development of a leisure complex and fox hunting is mentioned, whilst Frontier Worlds deals with Frankenstein foods. This seems to be very much on a par with the current concerns about undemocratic multinational companies, witnessed by the recent protests in Seattle. Is this why the culture on Drebnar had to seem so contemporary?
A: The GM foods stuff is a contemporary hook for readers. When I was writing Kursaal, there was a lot of fuss in the UK about a ring road (by-pass) being built through woodland near Newbury, a town which has some resonances for UK and US people because it’s near to the former US nuclear base at Greenham Common.
When I wrote Frontier Worlds, the fuss about GM foods had blown up in the UK and was starting to filter into North America (along with the recent GATT protests). So it was a motif that people would recognise, which I think works better than (say) introducing some theory about quantum subparticles and then having to have the plot stop for eight pages while your main character lectures his companion about the science of your story.
The other, much lazier reason is that it’s a great deal easier to use shorthand analogies for the mechanics of “phone,” “car”, “office,” “secretary” than to have to invent a culture, society, hierarchy, technology, physiology, legal and financial system etc. I didn’t have the time, the page-count, or the inclination to do that!
Q: There’s a great scene in Frontier Worlds where the Doctor palms a gun in Compassion’s possession. There have been quite a few companions in the books who seem more than ready to fire off a few shots, like Compassion in Parallel 59. What’s your view about the Doctor and guns?
A: Compassion really tests the Doctor’s patience and ingenuity. Unlike other companions, perhaps, she’s dangerous because she chooses to be, rather than because she’s a danger to herself or recklessly overconfident. In that respect, she’s a great counterpoint to Fitz.
The Doctor doesn’t carry guns or use them, and yet here’s a really dangerous character who he is transporting all round the universe. I think that’s a nice irony – it’s like he’s got a blind spot, as though he is being somehow reckless and overconfident.
Q: You receive an acknowledgement within the pages of Parallel 59. The main similarity appears to be the continuation of Fitz’s narration. What was your contribution to this book?
A: I read all the books in the linked series –either the published books or the latest available drafts, right the way through to Shadows of Avalon. That way I could ensure that, where appropriate, I “seeded” ideas for the later two books or I reflected stuff in earlier ones. I’d been able to see Parallel 59 from its outline stage, and had offered some (presumably useful) comments on it then.
So Natalie and Steve got me to read and comment on the whole thing. In the end, I did the structural edit for the BBC, too. Incidentally, I did the same thing for Justin Richards’ novel Grave Matter.
The Fitz first-person narration was a coincidence, though. I did suggest some alternative titles for the book, and I can’t remember if Parallel 59 came from me or Steve. Probably Steve, as he came up with The Ancestor Cell, which I wanted to call it The Horrid Obsession of Greyjan the Sane and was wisely talked out of.
Q: With the revelation that Stephen Cole wrote as Tara Samms, there’s been quite a lot of speculation about Natalie Dallaire. Many fans are guessing that she could be a pseudonym also. Would they be on the right track?
A: They’d be completely off the track and into the ditch. Natalie is alive and well and real and, shortly after delivering the manuscript for Parallel 59, delivered her beautiful baby.
Q: Parallel 59 had the revelation of the Doctor being in the nude, as witnessed by Compassion. Yet she doesn’t blink an eyelid, in much the manner that she reacted to Fitz’s nudity in Frontier Worlds. So, is the Doctor fully humanoid under that Edwardian frockcoat?
A: Hmm, the Doctor gets his kit off in Kursaal as well, now I think about it. It probably says something about his unselfconsciousness. As to what he conceals beneath his Marks & Spencer underpants… well, all I can say at this stage is that they are dimensionally transcendental, and they weren’t spun on any loom.
Q: Frontier Worlds seems to include quite a few scenes related to the current story arc. How difficult were these to inject into the plot? What sort of process is there in the creation of such a linked story?
A: I knew where things were supposed to be in the linked story because I’d discussed it at some length with Steve Cole and the other authors via e-mail, and a bit in person. One of my earliest and longest contributions to the discussion was a whole series of reasons why Compassion would be an absolute nightmare to use as a companion. We had some robust debate on this point, and my punishment was that I had to write a book with her in it.
So rather than cheat and sideline her, I decided to use these thoughts in her characterisation. And I ended up quite liking her. It’s interesting to pick things up now with The Ancestor Cell.
Q: What’s the best way to cook tofu (the Doctor seems to be a fan in Kursaal)?
A: Oh dear, don’t ask me! Whenever I’ve tasted tofu it reminded me of eating Plasticine in infant school. My wife is more of a devotee – I think she’d recommend frying it and cooking it in a black-bean sauce. I’d recommend making stick figures out of it for five-year olds.
Q: Why did you decide to have a werewolf-like race in Kursaal? Do you think that vampires have been done to living death in Doctor Who?
A: I didn’t think werewolves had been done in Doctor Who before – Mags in Greatest Show was a one-off, and I’d conveniently forgotten about Sorenson in Planet of Evil and the Primords from Inferno.
So perhaps it was that they hadn’t been central to a story, with the familiar trappings a DW “spin.” And I thought it would be fun to do a Hammer Horror set in Disneyland, with a big scene where our heroes are stalked through Pirates of the Caribbean.
Actually, I’ve just remembered that there was a Doctor Who Weekly cartoon about werewolves, but all I can now recall is the fourth Doctor slavering over his companion, the implausibly-named Sharon.
Vampires done to living death? Well, I really enjoyed State of Decay, Goth Opera and Vampire Science, which all had distinctive elements and the DW “spin” on the legend.
Others have had them more peripheral: Curse of Fenric has a wider idea about possession, and I think I remember Blood Harvest more for the gangsters! (Any more? Me and my rotten memory.)
Q: In a recent article in Doctor Who Magazine, David Darlington wrote that if a new TV series of Doctor Who were to come along, then much development in nine years of original Doctor Who novels would be lost, and that the books had polarised Doctor Who fans. What’s your view on this?
A: Depends on what this “much development” is. If it means “story events” (aka “continuity”) then I can’t get too excited about the prospect of losing it, or at least, forgetting it for 99.9% of the audience.
It’s much more interesting for me when Doctor Who mines the spirit of the series, rather than the facts or characters or plots. Few of the eras of Doctor Who that I’ve really enjoyed have depended on “developing” stories from the past. Even in the recent repeats of Genesis of the Daleks on BBC2, I think most viewers will remember the idea of the Daleks, rather than the fact that it contradicts a story first broadcast in 1964.
If the series comes back, most viewers will still assume that Daleks can’t traverse a staircase (yes, sad fans like us know a couple of episodes that contradict that and which were actually watched by a few million more viewers than saw the Genesis repeats).
So a series of books that is read by mere tens of thousands of DW devotees (or at least aficionados) can’t expect to have more influence on a TV or movie revival – even when they’re doing such interesting things with the Doctor’s character as (say) Human Nature – unless it’s the current writers who are working on the new show. And even then, they’d be digging a big hole for themselves if they put nine years of development for that small audience ahead of compelling original contemporary Doctor Who for a huge new audience.
As to whether the books have polarised Doctor Who fans, well I think it was Lance Parkin who said that if you show two fans any transmitted episode they’ll come up with three contradictory opinions! There’s something in any hobby activity which encourages collection, classification, deriving an order. The Eighth Doctor would laugh at the way fans find patterns that aren’t really there.
Polar or binary attitudes are the simplest categories of all, just like the endless “canon” discussions of what’s in and what’s out (no leeway for what’s shake-it-all-about there).
That all said, I think most fans can adopt a pick-and-mix approach. Like me forgetting that there were actually quite a few previous werewolf stories. And it’s why I usually avoid specific dating for my fiction, because I’m too lazy to do the research about the History of the Universe… leave it for others to decide where Frontier Worlds fits in.
The BBC books can be controversial because they’re not on TV, or they’re not faithful to TV, or they’re not as good as the Virgin books, or… well, you see my point. For the moment, they are the most regular and widely-available continuation of the DW franchise, and have a consistently professional standard.
That’s good enough for me.