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INTERVIEW: FTN interviews Doctor Who writer Lance Parkin

January 13th, 2013 by Irwin Fletcher Comments

He’s the man that brought together the fifth and seventh Doctors, Pitted the Doctor against Hitler, saw the eighth Doctor battle Ice Warriors, gave the tenth Doctor his first solo outing in the Eyeless, reinvented the entire series in the Infinity Doctors and even managed to put in a stint on Emmerdale. The Nerd caught up recently with the legend that is Lance Parkin to talk about his work.

FTN: Lance, thanks for talking to us, first off, has Doctor Who always been your first love?

LP: Short answer: yes. I’ve been watching longer than I can remember, the first book I bought was The Cave Monsters, when I was five. Most, not all, of my enduring friendships are people I’ve met via Doctor Who. I feel the need to stress that I’m a functional human being who does other stuff, but I had a discussion with some pals the other day where we were all wondering what our lives would look like without Doctor Who. Some people’s lives would look just the same. There’s just no way my life would, personally or professionally.

FTN: You got started by writing for fanzines like Seventh Door. How did that come about?

LP: I met the editor of Matrix, Mark Jones, at university. I wrote some stuff for Matrix. The thing that was most popular I did was a series of articles about the fictional history of the Doctor Who universe, and so that was expanded into a (very slim) book version.

FTN: So how did you get your first commission with Just War?

LP: Virgin encouraged new writers due to their commitment to the development of the next generation of international young authorial talent, and by the convenient total coincidence that those people thought a five hundred quid signature advance was wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Virgin had a writers’ guide, and … well, I read it and followed the instructions. I was reading the books, I knew the sort of thing they’d done, overdone, not done, and I decided to write a ‘pure historical’, I decided to go for this ludicrous idea, which was ‘Doctor Who fighting the Nazis, played straight’. And that was my first submission. Gareth Roberts had been paid by Virgin to work down the slushpile, he picked out mine as one worth pursuing. I’d written three sample chapters and a synopsis, the synopsis changed beyond all recognition, the three sample chapters were almost word for word as published. I had Rebecca Levene as my editor and when she talked about my book, it became manifestly obvious she understood it far better than I did, so I just listened to her and followed her advice. Then I made a note of the wordcount and delivery date on the contract and took that into account when I was writing the book, which apparently makes me weird in the world of publishing but editors seem to like it. They’d commissioned two more books from me before Just War was published. I just thought becoming a writer was like that, I didn’t know I was born.

The thing that’s startling about it now … I was 23 when I was commissioned. I wasn’t even the youngest. Rebecca Levene was only a couple of years older than me. I wasn’t a kid at 23, but … well, if I went back in time to one of those NA authors’ gatherings now, I’d be the oldest person in the room who wasn’t Terrance Dicks. That’s the appeal of the NAs, I think – that kind of sneer and everything’s possible you get in Grant Morrison’s stuff from around then, or listening to early Blur. I wouldn’t for a moment claim that Doctor Who was rock n roll when it was the New Adventures, but it did have a certain youthful energy.

FTN: There was quite a bit of backlash on certain fronts for the show back then. How did you feel about it?

LP: The TV show had failed, that was the truth of it. It had become tired and shoddy, with glimmers of promise but also moments of madness. A lot of fans really felt that if the BBC just treated it right, gave it some attention and allocated some top talent to it, it would be the biggest show in the world. Well, guess what, we called it, didn’t we?

But the key to it is that Doctor Who existed in this bubble. TV drama had moved on to things like Morse and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes – filmed, with a real attention to detail and based around strong scripts. Science fiction at the time was cyberpunk, Terminator 2 and Robocop, Watchmen and Iain Banks. The show in 1989 seemed to think the competition was the fourth season of Blakes 7. All the books did was say ‘we’re reading Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, watching Babylon 5 and the X Files, too’.

I re-read a couple of NAs recently … they’re very much the product of their times, as old now as glam rock was then, but they stand up. They’re ahead of their time, in the sense that they’re doing a lot of the things the new TV show understands it has to do.

FTN: And of course you did one of the few multi Doctor novels. Why did you pick the fifth and seventh Doctors?

LP: They represented the starkest contrast, I think – a young, fresh Doctor versus a cynical, seasoned one. The high concept was simple: they land on the same planet, at the same time, take one look at the conflict and … pick different sides. I also wanted to crash the styles together, so you’ve got this fifth Doctor aesthetic of guest stars, eighties eye makeup and small brightly-lit sets (Terry and June are in it, so are Adam and the Ants), then the Adjudicators and brutal stuff from the NAs. It couldn’t just be two characters bickering, that’s cute fanboy stuff on TV, but meaningless in a book – I could have had all the Doctors there, if I wanted, it’s just as easy to type – so it had to be a clash of ideology, of styles of telling a Doctor Who story. In the end, I think the fan stuff drowns out the bigger points I was trying to make about conflict. I was trying to process the break up of Yugoslavia with comedy robots and jokes about Tegan’s accent, and those are probably not the best tools for the job.

FTN: There was a classic moment in that story when the fifth Doctor notices the look of sadness on his other self’s face when he sees Adric. It was so beautifully written, you could feel the poignancy; something that the television series touched on for the seventh Doctor’s persona.

LP: Thanks. It’s a fairly obvious story beat, and it was just about finding a way of doing it without the seventh Doctor going ‘but but but … you’re DEAD!’. I think there’s got to be something quite dismal about being a time traveller, hasn’t there? You know when you watch an old movie and there’s that moment where you realise that the sexy young actors are all dead now? The Doctor’s got to have days like that. Yeah, he’s an eternal optimist, and he can go back and celebrate and meet people in their prime, or whatever, but when he meets Orson Welles on the set of Citizen Kane, surely at the back of his mind he’s thinking ‘your last film role is as the voice of Unicron’? Just occasionally, that’s got to catch him out.

FTN: How did you feel when you were offered the opportunity to write the final New Adventures, the Dying Days for Paul McGann’s Doctor. Were the Ice Warriors a species you waned to have a crack at?

LP: I was offered that book literally because everyone else was too busy – I was the fifteenth choice writer, or something, and Virgin needed it in six weeks and I was at a loose end because I’d just finished my Masters degree. It’s a book that started life as a Pertwee UNIT Missing Adventures proposal, Cold War. The Ice Warriors … sure. I didn’t have a burning desire, but they were a nice, simple monster with that built-in sense that they weren’t entirely evil.

FTN: Is it difficult to write for each Doctor given the different personalities on TV?

LP: No. There’s a difficulty generally which is that if you’re writing for TV, the actor’s there, so by definition you’re going to get a David Tennanty performance or a Matt Smithy one, even if they’re both working from the same script. They can say the same lines, but their own way, and they’ll nail the tenth or eleventh Doctoryness of it. With a novel, you have to pay some attention to the mannerisms. With The Eyeless, Kate Orman and Lloyd Rose both acted as my ‘when does the tenth Doctor put on his glasses?’ consultants. It’s something that’s best done with a light touch, I think – you’re careful to keep mentioning the long coat or the question-mark umbrella or whatever, but you try to keep it looking casual. Each incarnation is basically the same, obviously they have the same function in the story. And it’s a novel, not some forensic exercise in writing down what a TV episode would look like. What I’ve found is that if you get the novelistic stuff right, people accept the rest. Gareth Roberts always used to say he that when he did the fourth Doctor and Romana, he wasn’t writing Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, he was writing Dougal and Florence from the Magic Roundabout, but everyone always told him he’d really captured the essence of Tom and Lalla’s performance.

FTN: I have to ask, which one do you like writing for the most?

LP: I’ve written for a narrow range of them. Five, six, seven, eight and ten. I think the fifth is the one with the most meat on the bones, the one you can get the best novel out of. But the Doctor’s a real gift of a character, really easy to write for.

FTN: I’ve said to you before that the Infinity Doctors was the book I most wanted to see made for screen. It was a complete re-imagining that worked so perfectly and could easily feature past Doctors in alternate roles. How do you come up with this stuff?

LP: The Infinity Doctors was an attempt to start Doctor Who again as novels, instead of trying to recreate the TV show. TV and film are superficial. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a fact: you’re looking at and hearing it, you’re not getting under the skin. Any attempt to limit yourself to that in a book, you end up making an annotated script for an unmade TV episode. So I tried to do a very prose-heavy story based around the sort of things novels do best: allusions, psychology, wordplay, digressions. So, yeah, it’s Arc of Infinity, but it’s not just that. I aim to make my Who novels deceptive when it comes to being like TV stories.

FTN: The Eyeless would be horrible on TV – a bunch of child actors and dodgy transparent CG villains. You can allude to things in books, you can have ambiguities and let the audience join up the dots. One of the women in The Eyeless has a lover called Gyll – I never establish whether Gyll’s a man or a woman. On TV, you’d just about have to.

LP: Hmmmm. This wasn’t a brilliant career plan, was it? OK, allow me to rephrase: wow, all my books are incredibly filmable. I bet you could do The Infinity Doctors for about half the budget of your average hour of TV these days.

FTN: You also have done reference books for the show. Are you one of those fans that try to make sense of the series timeline? You did an amazing job on it and you recently released an updated version didn’t you?

LP: Ha. I was as a teenager, I didn’t realise there was a career in it. Mad Norwegian have just published their third edition of the book, my fifth. It started out as notecards when I was twelve, and trying to piece things together. It’s now a book that’s about as long as the Old and New Testament combined. It’s a really obvious idea for a book, and I love the fact it’s now tottering on the edge of absolute insanity because it includes so much. I wanted to include the cigarette cards, and wrote an entry for them, but Lars, my editor, wouldn’t let me.

FTN: Because of the detail you put into them, was that what led you to the Star Trek and Alias books?

LP: Virgin would actively want books from their authors, and they could be anything, pretty much. They had a line of episode guides, and I loved Alias, my pal Mark Clapham liked Alias, we’d both worked for them, so we persuaded them to publish it. It does have one of the oddest covers of any book I’ve ever seen, a picture of a rather nice looking person, Jennifer Garner, cropped and colour balanced so that you actively recoil from the image. Which I don’t really understand as a marketing tactic, but, y’know, marketing people get paid a great deal more than authors, so they’ve got to be right, yeah?

FTN: You created the Doctor’s first daughter in Miranda and there was a limited comic series based on her. you were lucky enough to resolve her storyline in Father Time. Why did the comic end after three issues?

LP: It was the first comic from its publisher, and it was glossy and the three issues they put out sold loads, but it just wasn’t making enough money. Making comics, then getting them into shops, takes a lot of time. We had a black and white science fiction comic with a female lead, and that’s basically three strikes against it in the current comics market. It was a great deal of fun while it lasted.

FTN: You are one of the few Doctor Who writers that have literally crossed the board in the books and they go for a fortune. That must be a great legacy for you.

LP: The legacy there is that people still talk about them. The Infinity Doctors was the 35th anniversary book, next year is the fiftieth, and people are still talking about The Infinity Doctors, and people are buying it again now it’s available as an ebook and print-on-demand title. There are a lot of serious, high profile writers who would kill to have their books discussed as long and hard as the Doctor Who books are.

FTN: How did you get into the production side of Emmerdale?

LP: Um … sheer nepotism and proximity. Gareth Roberts was appointed script editor, and it’s based in Leeds and I lived in a Yorkshire village, so one day I got a phone call from the producer of Emmerdale asking if I’d like to come in and talk about being a storyline writer on a soap opera I’d never actually watched. So I watched some episodes and read some scripts and I thought some of it was brilliant and some of it was terrible, and I said that at the interview and the producer nodded and then I got the job. I was basically Lutz out of 30 Rock, if that helps picture my place in the scheme of things. If you watch the show and don’t remember which one’s Lutz, that’s probably appropriate. I was there for about two years, then I spent another couple of years writing Emmerdale related books of various types.

FTN: What story would you like to do but never got the chance?

LP: I’d love to have done a Dalek story. It was on the cards for a while at BBC Books – I wrote a synopsis for a book called Enemy of the Daleks. It was an eighth Doctor book that would have come out around the time Parallel 59 did. It had a Dalek saucer crashing into a 747 over an Australian coastal town and a couple of Daleks surviving in the wreckage. It started small, then the Daleks realised the Doctor was there and actually captured him, learned about the War, concluded that they were the Enemy and … then the Enemy arrived. It had the Klade in it, superevolved Daleks from the future who’d become human, and I used them later in Father Time. It ended with a vast space battle.

FTN: Which projects do you enjoy the most; novels, comics, reference books or the audio plays?

LP: Novels, I think. None of them are exactly like toiling in the salt mines, but I love writing Doctor Who novels.

FTN: I think it’s high time you brought out another Big Finish play? As a writer, is that a more disciplined medium?

LP: Um … yes and no. You have a set number of actors to play with, I think it’s eight, and that’s a limitation you don’t have with a novel. At the same time, the audios are a lot shorter and have to keep things moving. And, all being well, you get a bunch of talented actors papering over the cracks. An audio takes about a week to write, a novel can take six months, so I’m going to be honest and say I’ve always felt more invested in the novels.

FTN: Any advice for budding writers?

LP: Don’t even think about writing Doctor Who novels. There’s a practical reason for that: BBC Books aren’t commissioning new writers. But there’s an artistic one, too – it’s a lot easier to be a Doctor Who fan than to be a novelist. Work on your own storytelling. Read a great deal more, and more widely, than you are now, however much you’re currently reading. I finish reading a book every day, or at least every other day, and when I say that, most people go ‘no, you can’t possibly’, and most of the professional writers I know go ‘duh, doesn’t everyone?’. That’s not a coincidence. Oh, and actually write – set yourself a word limit, whatever suits your schedule (with me, about 1000 words a day), and write that much. If you can manage 1000 words a week … well, you’ll have your book done in two years. If you can’t, you won’t. Being published is eminently possible, but ‘having ideas’ and ‘wanting to write some of them down one day’ are not the first steps on the way to being published, they’re just pretty much the default value of the human race. Ever wondered why some terrible book got published and your brilliant idea for a book didn’t? Because it’s books that get published, not ideas for books.

FTN: What projects have you coming up and where can people find them?

LP: The third edition of Ahistory just came out, and that’s available from the Mad Norwegian website (as well as Amazon and all the various places you’d expect to find Doctor Who books). I’m currently finishing off a biography of comics writer Alan Moore, which is out in November 2013 and has taken me over two years. It’ll explore the comics industry, Moore’s life, and most of all his work. His first published professional work solely as a writer was for Doctor Who Weekly, you know. I have a couple of other things in the works, but it’s far too early to talk about them.

FTN: Lance, thank you so much for talking to us. Finally, what do you hope to see for the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who?

LP: Oh … I’m sure they’ll do a great job. Stories that are funny and exciting. Look, the new show already gave me Kylie Minogue playing Halo Jones in a maid’s outfit and kinky boots. I already used up my three wishes

I'm an LA journalist who really lives for his profession. I have also published work as Jane Doe in various mags and newspapers across the globe. I normally write articles that can cause trouble but now I write for FTN because Nerds are never angry, so I feel safe.