Doctor Who: Simon Guerrier interview part 1

Doctor Who Big Finish writer Simon Guerrier also has novels and comics to his name. And he's been having a chat with Stephen...

Impressed by the recent Doctor Who Big Finish release The Judgement of Isskar, I wanted to ask some questions of its author, Simon Guerrier, who does – it seems fair to say – have a finger in most parts of the Doctor Who pie. He’s written two new series novels and one old one, eighteen short stories, and twelve audio dramas. He’s also written a few comics, one of which has recently been gracing the shelves of your local newsagent in ‘Doctor Who Adventures’. It has meerkats in. Which we’ll discuss in part two of this interview.

How did your first published Who work, The Switching [published in ‘Short Trips: Zodiac’, by Big Finish] come about?

The Switching was my first professionally published (that is, paid for) work of fiction, commissioned a couple of weeks after I went freelance. I’d been working as a project manager in a publishing company at the time and had a lot of contacts for writing non-fiction stuff. But I sent emails round everyone else I could think of, begging for any morsels of work. And my friend Jonathan Morris – already a successful writer of Doctor Who books [such as Festival Of Death, Arachnophobia and The Tomorrow Windows] – forwarded my message on to [Big Finish producer] Jacqueline Rayner, who was then assembling what would be Big Finish’s first anthology of Doctor Who short stories.

Jac had already read – and rejected – my ideas for Doctor Who novels in her job at BBC Books. I’d been sending in stuff to Virgin and the BBC since the mid 1990s. But she thought my prose was okay, and generously explained the wheeze of her anthology – 12 stories each based around a sign of the zodiac. She said I could send in some one-paragraph ideas but also warned me there was a lot of competition and I didn’t stand much of a chance.

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So I had a think and sent her six ideas. Any more would have been poncy. And, still not promising anything, she wanted to know a bit more about two of them.

One was about the First Doctor being confronted by his evil ‘son’, based on something actor William Hartnell had once proposed to the production team in the sixties. The other idea, The Switching [which features the Third Doctor and The Master swapping minds], I sort of nicked from an episode of Buffy where Buffy and her evil nemesis Faith swap bodies and none of Buffy’s friends notice.

To my great excitement, Jac liked that one. I wrote it up and got Jonathan Morris to look it over in the first week of September. He tore it apart, and had so many comments he had to staple on extra pages at the back. But all his comments were brilliant, and made the story – and my writing generally – much stronger. Jac had comments too, and as a result of their helping me, I’m really rather proud of that first effort.

Do you tend to read your own reviews? If so, how did you feel about the different poles of opinion expressed towards The Switching?

Yes, I read reviews. I don’t really remember “different poles of opinion” with The Switching; it seemed to go down okay. Certainly stuff I’ve done since has been much more divisive. At the time, I think I was more bemused by the efforts of some fans to work out which episodes of the TV series my story fit between. I thought I’d made it obvious…

In 2004 you compiled and edited the [Who spin-off] Bernice Summerfield compilation, A Life Worth Living. How did it feel to be editing and in charge of the work of Who luminaries such as Kate Orman and, specifically, Bernice-creator [and new series writer] Paul Cornell? Does it feel a bit odd to have adopted his ‘baby’?

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That was all a bit mad and brilliant. I had about six weeks from getting the job to delivering a final manuscript, and I got married in the middle of it. Paul and I had already discussed the outline of the book when he’d been due to edit it; I was trying to talk my way into writing a story for it. But then his work on the first series of Doctor Who was eating up too much time, and he asked if I’d take over the project. I don’t know if he asked anyone else first; I was too over the moon.

I took the notes he gave me, wrote them up into a fuller outline of the book, then sent that to everyone I could think of whose stuff I really liked. That included the editors who’d been so good as to give me work, like Jac Rayner and Justin Richards [whose career as a Who author spans back to the New Adventures in 1994], and people whose work I was a fan of – like Kate, and even Neil Gaiman. It was really exciting to be able to write to these people and offer them work, whether they accepted or not.

I didn’t really think of it as taking on Benny at the time – I was just filling in for Paul. I certainly never suspected all the things it led to – ultimately producing the whole Benny range and working with so many brilliant people.

Your first ‘proper’ Doctor Who audio was the Seventh Doctor story, The Settling. In it you placed the Doctor and Ace in the path of Oliver Cromwell as he sought to lay waste to Ireland. It’s not a very Seventh Doctor-like scenario. Where did the inspiration come from for it? Was it originally written with the Seventh Doctor in mind, or did you have to change the script to suit the character?

The Seventh Doctor meeting Cromwell in Ireland was the brief I was given. Producer and director Gary Russell had seen a documentary about that, and thought it would make a good historical Doctor Who. I’m not sure how many people he asked before he asked me – but I know [2000 AD writer] Dan Abnett turned it down because of the level of research that was needed. Gary wanted a proper, serious historical – perhaps as a counterpoint to the comedy The Kingmaker. I remember he gave me the script for that at one point, but I can’t remember when. I might have already delivered a script by then.

Can you tell us what you thought of the experience of seeing Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred bringing your play to life? Does the initial excitement lessen with time as you see more of your plays recorded?

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I went to the first of the two recording days, and it was thrilling but terrifying. Sylvester asked a lot of questions about the script, worrying about the practicalities of delivering a baby and whether I’d got that right. He and Sophie were lovely, though, and it was just a joy to see them, Philip Olivier and Clive Mantle bringing it to life. I’m still thrilled – and a bit scared – going to recordings. You just try to answer anyone’s questions and not to get in the way.

You managed to get yourself a part in The Settling. Was this something that you had intended from the start, or did you have to be persuaded to take it?

I get a couple of lines, delivering messages, and I think you can hear me being killed once or twice in the battle scenes. That was more because I was there on the day. I’d done that sort of thing before for Big Finish – me and my brother Tom played all the ‘ang-anging’ aliens in [Bernice Summerfield And] The Lost Museum. I used to be lifts and robots and aliens in the Benny range too, but more as a warning to writers not to write too many characters. I’ve just recorded a brain-melting death for [forthcoming Companion Chronicle] The Drowned World, in which my character is named in the script as Minor Role.

The only time I’ve been asked to come in specifically to play a role was as the zombies in the second [Who spin-off starring Katy Manning] Iris Wildthyme play. But director Gary Russell felt I sounded too much like Baron Greenback from Danger Mouse.

You are the only living writer to have produced work for Jean Marsh as the First Doctor’s companion, Sara Kingdom. How did you go about bringing Sara Kingdom to life, given that so few minutes of screen time exist for her? Did you feel like you had a freer rein in embellishing the character than you might with other companions that you’ve written for?

Producer David Richardson asked me if I’d like to write a Companion Chronicle, and Sara was one of the potential names on the list. Jean Marsh had already done something else for Big Finish, which was probably why they were thinking of a Sara story, but you’d have to ask David that. I immediately had an idea how you’d have an older Sara tell a story despite having died in her youth, and David liked that and the general wheeze of a sci-fi ghost story.

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Anyway, Sara’s in two existent episodes of The Daleks’ Masterplan – 5 and 10 – and I also listened to the soundtrack of her other seven episodes. She’s quite a tough, no-nonsense girl, but there’s a telling moment in episode 5 when she loses her temper with Steven [Taylor, the First Doctor companion played by Peter Purves] and we learn that the man she killed, Bret Vyon [as played by Who luminary, Nicholas Courtney], was her brother. So I took that and went from there. She’s also quite funny later on in the story, so I tried to keep that sharp sense of humour.

You’re given a reasonably free reign in embellishing the characters, so long as it’s not too removed from what we’ve already gleaned about them in the TV show. The Companion Chronicles, especially, let you get into their heads, so you have a much better opportunity to look at their motives and fears.

You gave the Brigadier a knighthood in UNIT: The Coup. Were you surprised when this was also referenced on screen in the new Who episode, The Poison Sky?

Delighted, yes. What a shame he didn’t appear in that episode, too. I wonder if they asked him?

[Ed’s note – apparently they didn’t. Courtney has stated that “I don’t know Russell T [Davies] at all. Never met him. So the answer [to ‘Would you go back?’, I don’t know. Put it this way: he probably would have approached me by now if it were on the cards. If the script were right, I’d love to do one story. It’d be great fun.” Since this interview (with Radio Times in April 2008), Courtney has, of course, returned to play the Brigadier in the Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. No sign of an appearance in ‘real’ Who yet, though.]

Your Wikipedia article contains this gem, “Guerrier’s work is characterised by character-driven humour and by an interest in unifying the continuity of the various Big Finish ranges through multiple references and reappearances of characters.” Discuss.

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Um… I don’t really think of myself as “unifying the continuity” so much as nicking stuff from everywhere. I really liked Alison Lawson’s short story about [the First Doctor’s companion] Barbara Wright’s mum, Joan, in the Short Trips book Companions, so asked if I could use her in The Time Travellers. Joe Lidster suggested putting Kadiatu in his Benny play to mark 15 years of Benny, and I thought that would be fun. And Ian Farrington asked me to write a short story featuring the characters we created for the UNIT mini-series, so I just did as I was told. Big Finish – and the books and comics – have created a huge universe of interesting characters and places. It seems a waste not to make use of them.

You’ve written for the Sixth and Seventh Doctors four times apiece, the Third and Fifth Doctors three times apiece, the Eighth and Ten Doctors twice apiece, but the First Doctor only once, and the Second, Fourth and Ninth Doctors not at all – feel free to correct me on that if I’ve got it awry – is this a conscious decision, or does it depend more on what you’re commissioned to do?

The Fourth Doctor’s in Categorical Imperative and the Second in Pass It On, while the First Doctor appears in Do You Smell Carrots? He was also the star of The Immortals before editor Ian Farrington asked me to make it a Fifth Doctor story. The Ninth Doctor also made a very brief cameo in Categorical Imperative before I knew we weren’t allowed to reference the new series under the terms of our licence. So it’s mostly what I’ve been asked to do. I chose to make The Time Travellers a first Doctor story, and I’d avoided the Second Doctor until Pass It On because I find him difficult to write. A lot of his persona is, I think, in Troughton’s performance and mannerisms rather in the things he actually says. I really struggled on that story, and am in awe of people who write him well.