Doctor Who: An Interview With Writer Robert Shearman

The man behind the New-Who classic episode "Dalek" spoke to us about Doctor Who, his new show, The X-Files, and more!

As impossible as it may seem, it has been a decade since Doctor Who returned to the airwaves with Christopher Eccleston as a Time War-traumatized version of everyone’s favorite Gallifreyan. Arguably the greatest episode from that first season of “New Who” is “Dalek,” the story that reintroduced Terry Nation’s iconic pepperpots. The man responsible for the episode was British writer and playwright Robert Shearman.

A veteran of the, er, fantastic Big Finish audio dramas, Shearman adapted his own story “Jubilee” for television. Shearman is currently in New York City for a restaging of his 1992 play Easy Laughter, a biting satire that still feels very much of the moment. This Saturday, he’ll appear at Brooklyn’s only Who-themed bar, The Way Station, to host a screening and discussion of “Dalek.” In advance of these events, we had an opportunity to ask him about his fascinating career. Here’s what he had to say.

10 years after “Dalek” debuted, the episode remains firmly entrenched in the hearts of Doctor Who viewers. How was the episode impacted your life, and why do you think that it continues to resonate with people on such a large scale?

It’s the weirdest thing, that it’s now ten years old. And that Doctor Who is still going! I think that was my principal concern, actually, looking back – I knew that what Russell was doing was extraordinary, but I had no reason to believe that Doctor Who itself would become terribly popular again. All my lifetime it had been this little show that had been a vague embarrassment to people, it seemed – when I was a kid, it wasn’t the cool thing to like in the playground. And I thought that even if we had a hit on our hands, we’d never get the chance to have a run of stories that would mean Doctor Who could have the richness of the classic series – we’d never last long enough to get a regeneration, or a new producer. We’d have ‘this’ version of the show, but never ‘that’ version of the show. And it leaves me still boggled that it’s still going so strong a decade later – that it really does now seem we could give the original 26 year stint a run for its money.

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Which is my roundabout way of explaining why ‘”Dalek” is now so fondly remembered. (Because it is! I’m so thrilled by that, you know?) I think it was very carefully positioned in the series so that in 2005 it had maximum impact as the big bad reveal at the centre of series one. And now, in 2015, it stands as being the very first Dalek story of the new series, so it comes with this wonderful nostalgic weight – it’s a significant episode, you can draw a line from that story to where we are now. Even Peter Capaldi’s Dalek story gets to riff on it. At the time it was this urgent piece of TV – Chris Eccleston is on fire, Joe Ahearne’s direction is properly dynamic. Now in some ways it feels like a signpost for where Doctor Who was going. (Not down to me, I must add – but down to the tone of what Russell was doing, and the broadening of the parameters of what Doctor Who was going to do.)

For my part, it’s had this tremendous impact. Ironically, it’s allowed me to become a prose writer. I’d always wanted to write books, but never thought I was ‘proper writer’ enough that anyone would be interested. Whatever I do from now, it’ll be built a little upon my identity as the guy who brought back the Daleks – it’s always, I’m sure, going to be the biggest job I’ll ever have in my life.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the creation of the episode. Could you share with our readers what the process was like in adapting “Jubilee” for television?

Russell had heard the audio drama I’d written for Big Finish, about a lone Dalek being tortured in a fascistic English Empire. Luckily for me, the idea of bringing back the Daleks in that unpredictable way, minimalist and defeated, really resonated with him – and even more luckily for me, he wanted to give me the chance to write it. That was pretty much all we took from “Jubilee'”, though. “Jubilee” was a huge black comedy about the way as fans we’ve forgotten the darker metaphor of what Daleks are through merchandising – it’s a story that relies completely upon overfamiliarity with the Daleks. And the humor is very sick – it’s very definitely intended for the exclusively adult audience who still cared about Doctor Who in its wilderness years.

In all other regards, “Dalek” had to be the flipside of that – a story that supposed no one watching the episode would have a clue who the pepperpots were, it had to serve as a genuine introduction. And be suitable for a family audience six weeks into a show that was trying to redefine what a ‘family audience’ could be in the first place.

So, my basic method of adapting “Jubilee”? Throw ‘”Jubilee” in the bin, start over.

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As a Doctor Who fan, how did you deal with the pressure of being the writer who was bringing the Daleks back to the airwaves.

Probably not very well, really! I spent some months in a state of never changing irritable panic. It was such a high profile job, and I was utterly unused to that – most of the work I’d done had been in the theatre. And suddenly you’d find that writing complications you’d have, like the month period when we thought we’d lost the rights to the Daleks, and I had to rewrite the story for a new monster, would be on the front pages of tabloid newspapers! I really just wanted not to let anyone down.

My big fear, I suppose, was that there was no innate reason why a child watching this new TV show would identify more with the Daleks, say, than with the Slitheen that had been on the week before – Slitheen are great, they look like giant babies and fart! So the pressure was to reintroduce them and suggest why they were the big icons of Doctor Who, without ever relying upon the iconography to do the job for me – because this time that wouldn’t wash. My wife gave me a list of reasons why she found Daleks embarrassing – the obvious ones, like not climbing stairs, the sink plunger, the limited vocabulary – and I tried to tackle them one by one, squashing down the criticisms before any new viewer could raise them.

What was it like working with Russell T. Davies on the episode? Do you have any plans on working on Doctor Who again, be it on television or in Big Finish plays?

Russell is extraordinary. The joy of working with him is that you’d leave every meeting just bursting with enthusiasm and energy for ways of making the episode better (and much, much better – he could be charmingly devastating if you wrote something that sucked!). I loved the way that he gave us such freedom to work on our stories, whilst at the same time we’d know we were part of a much larger story he was crafting – it’s such a fine balance, and incredibly exciting when it’s right. I never felt adrift writing episode six, because I knew it was part of a sequence next to episodes five and seven – but at the same time this was my episode, and he wanted (insisted!) I be as proud of it as possible, and fight for it. It was an amazing experience.

I’d never say never to a Doctor Who return. I love the show so much – but I’ve really had such fun trying to work out my own more personal stuff since doing it, and I’m a better writer because I did move away from the series. But I hope our paths will cross again at some point. It’s been twelve years or so since I wrote a Big Finish adventure. I’d like to do that again, once I’m taking a breather space between books.

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What can attendees to The Way Station’s “Dalek” event this weekend expect?

I’ll be doing a live commentary on the episode! Pointing out little titbits of gossip, and anecdotes, showing the bit where Chris Eccleston spits out over his chin and why there wasn’t a retake. And also discussing what it was like to write the episode, and the choices that are made. You know that annoying person in front of you in the cinema who won’t shut up whilst you’re trying to watch a movie? Basically, I’ll be him.

Having written a book about The X-Files and its related shows, what are your thoughts on the series’ revival?

I’m delighted and astonished. I never thought it would happen. You can tell towards the end of The X-Files‘ run on TV that there’s an attempt to see whether the show might be able to continue without the presence of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. (And if there’s ever a format that would allow a change of cast, it’s surely The X-Files!) But the measures taken at the time were a bit half-hearted, and that’s really cemented the show now as something that should always be about Mulder and Scully.

I thought The X-Files could be reinvented, but just never expected you’d have Mulder and Scully again. Neither of the actors need to come back – they’ve both been hugely successful since the show ended, thank you – and I think that’s the most exciting thing about it, that the return of The X-Files feels like an artistic decision, not as anything cynical or desperate. I’m hugely excited.

You are in New York City for Dirt’s production of Easy Laughter. Is this the first time that the play has been staged in NYC? What can you tell readers about it?

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Easy Laughter is a strange play! It’s a nasty black comedy about a family enjoying Christmas together – only for some reason it’s called Cristtide, and they’re celebrating something much much darker alongside the birth of Jesus. It was probably the first thing I wrote, way back in 1992, that launched my career – it won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, and was rather notorious in its day. It’s about trying to find where comedy starts and ends – if you’re prepared to laugh, say, at a husband humiliating his wife on stage, how will you feel if other more entrenched forms of suppression come out to play? And the darker and sicker it gets, the funnier it gets too – the joy of staging it was always to see the audience diverge upon the exact point when they could still laugh.

It’s been staged in the States a couple of times before, but never in New York. I’m here to attend the opening, and I’ve been already to an early run-through – and I thought it was wince-makingly good. The cast are just superb. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the play better.

Although originally staged in the 90s, the play’s subject matter seems more relevant than ever. As the creator of the work, what feelings does this fact stir within you?

The play was written in response to a political landscape at the time I found deeply troubling, and it came out in a rush of cruel humour and white hot rage. It’s a very angry play, and it’s designed to make people angry too. Amused, certainly – but angry! I never really believed in 1992 that somehow the world would have become even more frightening a place than it was then, I didn’t expect that my nasty little satire would still be relevant in the twenty-first century. But here we are. And here it is. The writer in me is proud to see Easy Laughter on stage again – it’s like an old friend. (The sort of old friend that’s a bit twisted, but a friend nonetheless.) But watching it as a member of the audience, with the writing memories so long ago, I found it chilling. I hope it sends a chill out all over Manhattan!

For more information on Robert Shearman, visit him on Twitter.

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