Paul Cornell interview: Captain Britain, Doctor Who, Matt Smith, Primeval and more…

He's writing Captain Britain, is responsible for some cracking Doctor Who episodes and is a thoroughly nice bloke: we get talking to Mr Paul Cornell…

Paul Cornell

Whether it’s penning rightly-acclaimed episodes of the revived Doctor Who (Human Nature, The Family Of Blood, Father’s Day), coming up with fresh adventures for Captain Britain or taking on some of Marvel’s biggest names, Paul Cornell’s reputation has been soaring.

We had the pleasure of meeting him just before he took to the signing table at London’s Forbidden Planet for a chat about his work, and what he’s got coming up around the corner.

Without further do…

I checked your Twitter feed just before I came out to do this interview and I love the update in there, “I’m off to sign things at Forbidden Planet and proud.” I’m guessing events like this really mean a lot to you.

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Absolutely. A Forbidden Planet signing. Who wouldn’t be proud of it? It’s wonderful.

Well, looking at your list of conventions that you’re attending as well, your holiday itinerary seems to be well mapped out!

We do tend to, literally, make our holidays around the conventions. Worldcon, wherever it is in the world, we do two weeks there beforehand. We’ve done Colorado. We’ve done Japan. And we’ve got the wonderful double-header this time round of New York Comic Convention and then Gallifrey.

Do you enjoy the fact you’ve got the variety of it- you’ve got some people wanting to talk comics, some people wanting to talk Doctor Who?

Absolutely, I’m in three different fandoms: SF, comics and Doctor Who. And this is a balanced diet, I think. You have to get three major food groups there, and it certainly keeps it fresh.

Can we talk Captain Britain first, as he’s the reason for this signing today. How would you describe him to a complete outsider?

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He is Marvel’s Shazam. He’s a dirty great big magical superhero who deals in magic in a physical way. He can’t cast spells but he can find his way through magic. He literally rips a spell apart with his bare hands in the new issue. He is the British icon. He is the central British superhero like unto Captain America, and thus, he is not silly. He is not whimsical, except when he wants to be. He is not a drunkard. He’s not an alcoholic. He is not all sorts of things.

What he is, is the pivot around which British superheroes revolves and, hopefully, that’s where we’ve got him.

Because there’s not a huge tradition of British superheroes…?

Well, actually, there’s a pretty big tradition. There was a huge – for about three weeks in the 1990s – Marvel UK was enormous! [Laughs] And I think it’s not giving away too much to say I’ve got Motormouth & Killpower in the new issue. For a very short cameo. But, no- so, it’s getting those characters, it’s doing well by them.

Have you got Death’s Head in there as well?

Not as yet. I’d love to do Death’s Head. He’s one of the few my opposite numbers, Abnett and Lanning, have actually used him recently. So, they also are keeping the traditions going.

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Is it very special to have the Marvel name [on a piece], what with their tradition?

Hugely.

Because that would be my geek goosebump moment…!

Enormously. I am such a Marvel fanboy. That’s why I put Killraven and [Shang-Chi] the Master Of Kung-Fu into Wisdom [X-Men: Wisdom], because I thought, ‘I’m never gonna get to write another Marvel comic, so I’ve got to do everything I’ve always wanted to do at Marvel in one go.’ It’s a wonder the The Defenders thing wasn’t in there as well.

And yet, you’ve endured at Marvel quite awhile…

Yes. They are so welcoming. They’re so lovely. This is the thing you don’t expect. You expect them to be hardcore and kind of ‘grrr’ and drawn by Jack Kirby and square-jawed and chomping on cigars and calling you “gold bricks”, whatever a gold brick is.

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But they are laid back and gentle and kind and a lot- just tremendously easy to work for and understanding. And what I love is the speed of it. Me, Nick Lowe and Leonard Kirk can make a creative decision and get it approved in an afternoon. We can turn a book around just like that. Coming from television, that’s the luxury – that you have a huge lever to make creative work.

Do you even do that on Fantastic Four..?

Yeah, basically, Tom Brevoort [Paul’s editor on Fantastic Four] will ask me if I have an FF story to tell, said, ‘Ooh, yes, I like that FF story.’ I wrote it for him and he said okay.

Does that kind of thing just come up in conversation: have you got a Fantastic Four story?

Bless him. He’d actually reach out to me, which was very nice.

That must be great.

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Yeah. He’s a very nice man, as well.

And, the fact that you’re about to sit on a table in front of a group of people coming up and wanting your signature …?

Ohh… bloody lovely. [laughs]

I’m getting the impression you’re really quite stoked about it, slightly satisfied

Yeah, hugely. For one thing, it’s a specific audience – British Marvel audience and you’re kind of- you’re writing the title so they’ll like it. But that’s also a subset of writing the title so they’ll be a comics audience that’ll like it. I’m never gonna write something, a Briticisms that Americans can’t understand. Which has never- it’s only ever come up once, I think. Maybe it’s because Nick Lowe is fairly rife with Briticisms himself. But, anyway, yes, it’s great.

Are any more obscure Excalibur characters set to appear, like Crazy Gang or Slay Master?

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Crazy Gang isn’t that obscure to me and Slay Master, no, because his death is really quite important for the Captain and I want to keep him dead. But Crazy Gang, entirely possible. I have no plans as yet, but basically, anybody from Excalibur history and from Marvel UK history is a possible, is in the mix. I made the mistake of telling Wizard [Wizard: The Magazine of Comics, Entertainment and Pop Culture] about Tangerine and it’s not going to happen now, because I decided against it and decided to go for Motormouth and Killpower instead. But anyway…

Just before I get to Doctor Who, I’ve got to ask you – you’ve written Casualty episodes. Is that the British equivalent of writing Final Destination movies?

It is, rather. I hate the fact that on my Wikipedia, it still lists all this previous, non-SF stuff.

IMDb page, as well, it’s got Coronation Street listed…!

Every single convention I go to, in the booklet there’s: “He wrote for Casualty. He wrote for Doctors.” I don’t give a damn now!

Actually, I do about my Casualty. I did six Casualtys under this really great regime where we had lots of budget and were out with paramedics telling real paramedics stories. Then we lost the budget and it shrank back to soapy-the-hospital.

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I’ll go back to Doctor Who. I mean, Doctor Who‘s really my thing…

Yeah, mine too.

What I wanted to ask you is that it was really interesting going through the recent Battlefield DVD because I love the writers’ commentaries they put on some of these. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. Ben Aaronovitch, who, I think, wrote a couple of really interesting Doctor Whos…

Ben is a great writer.

There was a real yin and yang to the way he felt these stories had been interpreted. In that Remembrance [Of The Daleks] he was very pleased with and thought that they did a great job. With Battlefield, though, he was frustrated as anything with the end result. I’m wondering how you feel about the way yours came across?

I think whatever happened is between old Who and new Who. These days, there’s a much smoother process from script to screen. You’re much more part of a team getting there. So I’ve been nicely surprised by visuals several times, but I’ve never had any nasty surprises. I’ve never had anything that I thought, ‘Well, that’s not what I wrote.’ And, no, it’s been really good like that.

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I have to ask when you got the call.

I know exactly when I got the call. In both cases. I was putting in some oven chips for Fathers’ Day … [laughter] and Russell actually said…

Did you burn them?

[Laughs] No, actually. Russell actually said, “What are you doing at this moment?” [laughs]

Because you always remember! And the second time, I was reading a letter from the estate agents who owned a lease on my property, which finished, “P.S. We gather that congratulations are in order because you’re writing for Star Wars.” [laughter] I thought, ‘The rent’s gonna go up.’ They’d got it completely wrong; I was writing for Doctor Who. But, that second, Russell called for a second time.

You ought to get a collection of these. Every Who writer knows.

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Well, you’re my second [James Moran was the first – see the interview link at the bottom]

Actually, Rob Shearman was on a bus. [Steven] Moffat was backstage at a television awards ceremony, having just met Peter Davison and having just got an award. As he says, it’s probably the best night of his life.

You make the point about how Doctor Who‘s changed, I read the piece on your blog about how we found out new Doctor Whos used to be cast. We had this really quite extraordinary – almost X—Factor-esque – episode this time round for the casting of Matt Smith. And you wrote on your blog, “I do wonder, though, if this is why we’ve seen an upswing in anti-geekery lately, in nerd name-calling.”

Can you just explain your feelings on that a bit more?

Whenever, these days, something of our work gets mentioned in the broadsheet press, it is to say this thing that is geeky is not geeky, because we must separate it out from the geekiness. So any time a successful SF novel or Doris Lessing gets the Nobel Prize or anything like that, it’s almost as if geekery has become so cultural, so all encompassing, that it’s actually now washing against the base of the ivory tower and they have to pull in their skirts a bit. Not that towers have skirts. [laughs]

Is that just part of an antidote, almost, to the geek culture that really is just taking over the world?

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Absolutely. I think there’s a certain kind of literati, and it’s by no means all. I mean Doris Lessing, bless her, was very up for being an SF writer. Michael Chabon sent in a Hugo Award acceptance speech and he’s obviously aware of this because he declared “I am an SF writer” in his speech.

I think that there’s a certain brand of literati who hate the fact that they couldn’t fix their own computers. [laughter]

Going back to Doctor Who, there are many who see you as next in line to the throne about Steven Moffat?

[Replies quickly] I’m not!

But you’ve still got to answer this question…! We want to know your casting for the twelfth Doctor in Season 9.

[Laughs] The rules will be completely different by then, some- a whole other bunch of actors will have come along.

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Did you like the surprise factor of casting of Matt Smith?

Yeah. I thought it was brilliant.

It was really old-fashioned in its own way, I thought.

Yeah. Just tremendous. I love Matt Smith. I think he’s got that look about him. I think he is that new Tom Baker. I think he’s got that spark there. And I really, really can’t wait to see what he does with it.

Can I ask if you’re remaining involved in it? Will you be doing any writing for it?

It’s far too early to say that. We’re not at that place yet.

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It’s a lovely paradox by casting such a young man in that you’ve basically got a young man who knows absolutely bloody everything.

Yeah.

I just think that must be such a fascinating thing, as a writer, to get your teeth into.

Oh, I think it’s gonna be great. It’s just wonderful to feel that sense of it all starting up again, you know? The regeneration of the show. As always. Every time there’s a new Doctor this happens. It’s a great feeling.

And would you like to see Bernice Summerfield in there?

The thing is I would love to see Lisa Bowerman in the show. I’d love to see Bernice Summerfield in the show, but I don’t think that’s on now because River Song has sort of taken her ecological niche. And it’s obvious why it can’t be Bernice because Moffat wants to do River Song things with her, including kill her off, you know. Which, I’d have been upset if he did with Benny. It would be really hard to have Benny in it now.

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I’m running out of time so I’m just going to squeeze in two or three more questions…

We’ll keep going ‘til they bust down the door!

Captain Britain – would you like to go down a movie route there?

Yes, absolutely.

Is there any hint about it?

Not yet. I think it would be an interesting movie to do because we would have to play it straight – and the British being the British, it would be really hard to find a British studio that wasn’t depressingly, reflexly culturally cringing about it and wanted to make it into a comedy. I suspect that will be the case, although… let’s see. Let’s see if anything happens.

And for you, personally, what are your plans next?

Well, there’s several more Marvel things, all of which I can’t talk about yet.

Marvel is like surfing a dream. It’s absolutely wonderful at the moment. There are two telly things I can’t talk about. I’m in the midst of a novel. I’ve got a third short story coming out in – I’m very proud of this – every single continuing non-theme anthology out there.

There’s been some awards attention there, as well.

I love Hugo season. It’s always my favourite time of the year. Winning one would make it better. It’s Moffat’s bloody favourite time of the year. [laughs] The other day I said to him, ‘You’re like the Hugo Channel. We’re never more than 15 minutes away from another mention of your bloody Hugos.’ [laughter] I hope he wins a fourth one for Silence In The Library, as well.

And you know, if we get four, Doctor Who has equalled every other television series that ever existed in terms of number of Hugos. Four would give us all forms of Star Trek put together. Equal with.

Excellent. Hidden at the back of your IMDb page it says One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing is a favourite movie of yours.

Oh, yes! Absolutely. What’s that doing on IMDb? How do they know?!

They’re quoting you directly on it. You make a point in there about how you’re not afraid to admit…

Oh!

Number one: is it? And number two: why?

Yes. Because I love it.

It ruined my Christmas. Because as a kid, as soon as the BBC did their film reel, you got really excited. Get the Radio Times and they were plugging it, and plugging it, and plugging it. For Christmas Eve, the big Christmas Eve film… I was devastated. Devastated. I hated it. And I should have loved it.

Have you seen it as an adult?

Does that make a huge difference?

Yes, It’s ninjas versus nannies. [laughs] Jon Pertwee firing guns out of windows!

Would you write a modern day remake of it? Sort it out!

No. No, because that would spoil it. And, I tell you what. We wouldn’t be able to have Peter Ustinov playing Chinese again. And, actually, nor should we, frankly. It’s a really good performance but…

You’ve got Robin Hood, Primeval, Doctor Who… There seems to be this little gang of you who go from show to show.

It’s like in the 70s. We have television fantasy writers again. It’s wonderful.

Does the mechanic change? James Moran clearly had a ball on Primeval because he got to meet his monster.

Yeah, I loved it.

It was almost like he got to write around his creature. Would you share that view?

Yeah, I love Primeval. They just asked me back and I turned them down just because I was so busy. But I would have loved to have gone back. They’re a really nice bunch. They’re really talented. They care so much a bout the natural history. They’ve got a guy throughout, from the first meeting, who’s saying, “Well, here’s how that animal behaves, and here’s what we’d like to say about it.” It’s a wonderful thing for the kids at home – that they don’t treat them as monsters.

At that point, the door did get burst open, and Paul Cornell went off to do his signing. A thoroughly lovely bloke, who we’ve very much enjoyed chatting to. We hope he gets that call for Doctor Who season five, and we suspect we’re not alone…

Many thanks to Forbidden Planet for sorting out the interview. You can find their website here.

Interviews at Den Of Geek