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INTERVIEW: FTN interviews TV show novelist extraordinaire John Peel

December 20th, 2012 by Marc Comments

John Peel is a highly regarded writer and holds a special place among Doctor Who fans as the man entrusted to bring the last of the Dalek tales novelized for Target books, as well as TV tie-in books for Quantum Leap, DS9, Eerie, Indiana and James Bond Jnr.

We caught up with him recently to ask how he got the most wanted job back then in Who fandom and what story he really wanted to tell for Sam Beckett.

FTN: Can you tell us how you got started in the writing business?

JP: It started as a kid – I was quite ill when I was younger, and couldn’t play sports. I was allowed to stay indoors and read instead, as a result of which I soon got through pretty much every book in my school library really quickly. I started making up my own stories, and never stopped. (Many of them were Doctor Who stories, of course, and often featured the Daleks.) I got together with a friend, Steve Evans, who also wrote, and we’d sometimes write stories together. After several years of this he decided he wanted to join the Doctor Who Appreciation Society, and talked me into doing the same. This was the very early days, and they were producing “Tardis”, which included the occasional story. We didn’t like those, as we felt they didn’t catch the spirit of the series, so we complained. Gordon Blows, the editor, basically said that if we thought we could do better, go ahead and try. So we wrote a bunch of stories (again, one of mine was a Dalek story!) and sent them in. Gordon contacted us and said he wanted to publish them all, as a special “Cosmic Masque”, and would we be interested in starting a Writers Pool to keep the magazine going and to help other would-be writers. So we became involved in that for a year or so. Steve got bored and quit, leaving it all to me. I did this for a couple of years and then Maggie Thompson in the US contacted me about writing a DW column for her new magazine, “Fantasy Empire”, which I did. At this point I was moving to the US myself to get married, and I also met John Freeman of DW Magazine and pitched a few stories to him. He ended up buying four of them, my first fiction sales.

FTN:  When did the progression to television spin off novels happen? Was the Avengers your first foray into the genre?

JP: After I moved to the States, I ended up becoming the editor of “Fantasy Empire” after Maggie left. That spun off into various other magazines and the Files series. St. Martins Press had noticed the upswing in DW fandom in the States at this point and wanted to do a DW factual book. They contacted me to see what I thought of ideas they’d been pitched – most of which were truly awful. So I suggested they instead publish an updated version of Terry Nation’s “Dalek Pocketbook” from the 1960s. They liked the idea and asked me to contact Terry about it. I did, and he liked the idea, too, but didn’t have the time to update it himself and suggested I do it. That eventually led to “The Official Doctor Who And The Daleks Book”, my first professional book sale. Terry had moved to the US several years earlier and had a lot of his old materials in packing cases in his garage. His poor wife would go into them, pull out anything that had “Dalek” in it and mail it to me! So I got to go through a lot of material for the book. After the book was published, my editor at St Martins asked me if there was anything else I’d like to do, and I said: “An Avengers novel!” He loved the idea, so I came up with a plot involving all of the regulars from the series. Dave Rogers came aboard as liaison with the copyright owners and he offered me some advice. I sent the outline to Terry, since he’d been the story editor for the Linda Thorson series, and he made some helpful suggestions. Other than that, I was allowed to do whatever I liked with the show since there were no plans at all to revive it. The dreadful movie came years later.

FTN:  Are you a science fiction/fantasy fan?

JP: I have been since I first read “The Adventures of Tintin” as a child. “Destination Moon” and “Explorers On The Moon” hooked me, and I was soon reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov. I had a weakness for the whimsical, so my favorite SF writer is still Eric Frank Russell. I’m still a great reader of the genre, though it’s hard to beat the old pros.

FTN: How did you get the task of writing the Doctor Who Target novels that no one else had touched to that date ie the last of the Dalek stories?

JP: Terry. It was entirely his doing. Target Books desperately wanted to publish the last remaining Dalek stories, since the Dalek books always outsold the others, and they were constantly asking Terry about them. He’d not been too happy with the ones Terrance Dicks had written – not Terrance’s fault, since he’d been given such strict limits on page count and everything – and Terry didn’t want any more like that. So after the Official Daleks Book, Target asked Terry again, and he said that they could have them – provided that I was the one to novelize them. This was something of a leap of faith on Terry’s part since, as far as I know, he’d never seen any of my fiction, but he was convinced I’d do it right. Target was so desperate, they agreed without question. When they asked me to do the books I told them point-blank I didn’t want any silly page-count restrictions, and they said I could do whatever I liked. Terry sent me his original scripts, and I was quite surprised. There were some parts of the televised version of “The Chase” that I found a bit too silly – like the whole speech in episode 1 by Vicki about the fairy castle. It wasn’t there – it had been added by Dennis Spooner. Instead, Terry’s script was darker and far more fun, but – on a BBC budget – completely unfilmable. Since I didn’t have budget problems, I decided to add back all of the cut material, which I think made a much better story. I did retain as much of Dennis’s revisions as possible, too. Then when it came time to do “Masterplan”, I told Target that I couldn’t put 12 episodes into a small book. I said we needed either one really big book or two smaller ones. They said I could go with either, so I chose two smaller ones. Terry asked me why, and I said: “Two advances!” Terry laughed and said: “Now you’re thinking like a writer!”

FTN: As a fan I remember the big deal at the time that these last four books were to be written and you were a God to fans everywhere? did you realize how a big deal it was at the time?

JP: Absolutely. I wanted to make certain that I got it right. I didn’t want to be the writer who screwed up the Daleks! So I really worked hard to make those novels the best books I possibly could.

FTN: What was Terry Nation like as a person as we only get to see the writer side on documentaries?

JP: He was very kind and modest. He always had time to talk with his fans, and was very friendly and outgoing. He was easy for me to work with because if I wanted to change anything, he’d say: “You’re the writer, John. Do what you think is needed, and I’ll go along with it.” When I was doing my history of the Daleks, he told me he didn’t think I’d be able to make sense out of it because he’d never tried to himself! He knew he’d created icons in the Daleks, and huge fan favorite “Blake’s 7”, but he always said it was out of desperation! He was very funny to chat with, but also thoughtful and insightful. He knew I’d criticized some of his TV stories, but he never held that against me. I remember saying that I thought “Aridius” for an arid planet was a silly name, and he said that yes, to *me*, as an adult, it might be. But that he had to remember that there were children in the audience, too, and that they might think: “Wow! Aridius – arid – I know that word!” And he was right, of course. You have to write for your full audience. He taught me a lot like that. The only times I ever saw him angry were when a producer messed up his ideas. After he’d left both “Blake’s 7” and “The Survivors”, he loathed the directions they took because the producers didn’t see things the way he did. I was at a convention with him and Gerry Davis when news came that one of these producers had died. “Let’s not speak ill of the dead,” Gerry said about the news. “No – let’s!” said Terry, and promptly did so! He also chain-smoked, which is what killed him. I didn’t even know he was ill, he kept it very quiet. The first I knew was when his agent, Roger Hancock, called me out of the blue to tell me Terry had died. I was stunned.

FTN:  When Doctor Who was cancelled, you were entrusted with launching the new Adventures range of books with the seventh Doctor and Ace? How did you approach both the book and the characters?

JP: Well, I lobbied to be the first to write an original novel – I really wanted to be the first, so I pitched an idea as soon as I heard they were doing them. The editor, Peter Darvill-Evans, read it and then said: “Well, I wanted something with Sumerians in it. Do you know the Epic of Gilgamesh?” I’m a huge reader of ancient legends, so I did, in fact, and could turn around and pitch a Gilgamesh story almost immediately. Peter loved it, and gave me the go-ahead. The main problem was that I was not a fan of the McCoy era. Both Sylvester and Sophia are truly the nicest of people, and we’ve always had great fun when we’ve met up at conventions (which is why Sophie agreed to write the intro for my novel), but I didn’t – and don’t – like their era. I thought they’d made a huge mistake with the concept of the “Time’s Champion”, and in having the Doctor instigate the stories by plotting against the Daleks and the Cybermen. One of the great strengths of DW has always been the possibility that the Doctor might fail. This adds tension to the stories. Okay, he’s the hero, so he isn’t going to fail horribly, but there’s always the chance. Especially Troughton, I think – you always feel he’s on the verge of really mucking everything up before he somehow saves the day! But McCoy’s Doctor, plotting and planning like it’s a chess match – that always struck me as being the wrong approach. So I was determined that in my story the Timewyrm was going to be the Doctor’s greatest mistake – hubris, pride taking its fall. In “Genesys”, the master-plotter fails, and it leads to catastrophe. Ace… I had a lot of trouble with Ace. I couldn’t get a grip on her character. Why was she the way she is? What led her to be such a fiend with explosives? Were her parents alive? I sent in questions to the production staff, and they were absolutely no help at all. They did tell me, for example, that she’d lost her virginity to Glitz – which I didn’t care about – but nothing at all about her background! Which is why I invented a lot of it, I had no other choice. And since I wasn’t a fan of the JNT years, I got a few of my recollections wrong, and made some mistakes in continuity that were quickly commented on!

FTN: Who was your favourite Doctor to write for?

JP: Hartnell, without a doubt. He was my first Doctor, the one that hooked me on the show. And his mood-swings are so wonderful, they’re great fun to write. I’d love to have done more with him.

FTN:  With Legacy of the Daleks and War of the Daleks, were they scripts you wanted the show to produce before it was cancelled and if so, how much freedom did you have especially in including Davros and Roger Delgado’s Master?

JP: Going back to Terry getting mad at producers who messed his ideas – when “Remembrance Of The Daleks” came out, he was absolutely livid. He told me he’d never approved blowing up Skaro, and he felt that JNT had betrayed him. “That man will never have the Daleks again!” he vowed. It turned out to be an accurate prediction, as the show was promptly suspended and then cancelled. I’ve spoken with Ben Aaronovich, who assured me that his outline had always contained the destruction of Skaro. Ben seems like a nice person, so I’ve no reason to disbelieve him. Terry always felt that it had been JNT’s fault, that he’d changed the draft he’d seen. It may be. Anyway, Terry had hated “Remembrance”. So had I, though there are some nice bits in it (like the racism angle), and I decided to try and repair the problems. I’d not liked how any of the Dalek stories starting with “Destiny” had gone, feeling they had made the Daleks look rather pathetic and that Davros was overused. So I wrote the draft for a four-part story, “War Of The Daleks”, to resolve all of the problems I had with the series – restore Skaro, bring the Doctor down a peg or two by having his plans not being as smart as he’d thought, and killing off Davros. Terry loved the outline, but asked me to make sure there was a way Davros could survive if they wanted to bring him back. “I learned the hard way in my first Dalek story never to kill off a successful villain permanently!” So I included a possible escape scenario. By this point, though, the show had been cancelled, so I shelved the plot.

Then BBC Books decided to start their own line of novels, and of course the idea of an original Dalek novel to help kick the series off appealed to them. So I whipped out “War” and they bought it. If you look at the novel carefully, you’ll see the splits for the four-parts of the TV serial. A also added in “breaks” that used concepts from the old Dalek Christmas Annuals I’d gotten as a kid to make the book as much of a celebration of the entire history of the Daleks as I could.

After “War”, they wanted a second Dalek novel. Back in my Writers Pool days I’d written a story for Cosmic Masque called “Legacy Of The Daleks”, which was about Susan after the Doctor left, and I used that as the basis for my story because I’d always been intrigued by the concept of a Time Lord marrying a mortal, and what happens when the spouse ages. So basically it’s an expanded version of the original fan story. My editor asked me at the time not to tell anybody – afraid they’d be deluged with fan stories from everyone trying to do a book! Nobody had a problem with my using Delgado’s Master (still my favorite Master). In fact, I was asked to make only one change in the plot, and that was a fairly minor thing.

FTN: Have you ever written a television show spin off and thought ‘My story was better than the live action series.’ (War and Legacy of the Daleks are better stories than many of the new era stories, hands down!)

JP: Of course! We writers are all egotists – we have to be. I mean, we have to go to an editor and pitch them a story and convince them they can’t live without it! If we don’t think we’re writing the best thing that ever could be done, we’d never be able to sell anything! So, naturally, I think I’m better than many of the TV writers! What’s encouraging is when other people think that, too. When I was writing “The Outer Limits” novels, I was very flattered when my contact at MGM told me she liked my books better than any of the TV episodes she’d seen! Also, you have to remember, I can do *anything* in a novel and that they’re limited on TV by a budget. So when I do a tie-in, I always try and write something they simply couldn’t film.

FTN: We here at the Nerd are huge Deep Space 9 and Quantum Leap fans. Can you tell us how you got those gigs? Is it easier to write those characters because you can watch them on screen?

JP: Absolutely. That’s one of the appeals of writing tie-ins – that you get to play in other people’s universes, and with characters that you love. Whenever I wrote a tie-in, it was always of a show I’d actually watched and enjoyed. I rather surprised my editor on the Nickelodeon shows I wrote when I knew and had seen the series they asked me to do. There was one exception to this – I did a series based on “James Bond Jr” that I hadn’t seen at the time. But I couldn’t resist doing Bond, so I agreed to it. And those scripts were dreadful, really, really dire. So I just took the basic concept and threw the rest away. Mostly, though, it has to be a show I know and love.

That certainly applied to DS9, which is my favorite of the Trek shows. I loved the concepts and the characters, so I was eager to write one. I came up with the concept of “The Borg find DS9”, which I thought was a no-brainer – how could anyone not like that? But my editor turned it down. “Paramount will want to keep that for themselves,” he predicted. (They didn’t, as it happens…) So he asked me to change the villains, because he loved the plot otherwise. I came up with the idea of The Hive, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wanted villains that weren’t particularly evil because you get tired of rampant megalomaniacs after a while. And in my reading I remembered a short story in which a generation starship reaches its goal – and nobody wants to leave, because they’ve only ever known the ship as their home. So I took that one step further and created aliens who *couldn’t* leave, because they were agoraphobic. One bonus for me was that my book was going to come out at about the same time as the new season of the show, so they asked me if I could incorporate some of the changes that would be introduced in the new series – the Defiant and so forth. So I got to see the draft script for the new story months before it appeared on the screen.

“Quantum Leap” was a show I loved, and was one of the few times I actually went looking to write a tie-in. I badly wanted to do one, and approached Ginger Buchanan about it. I pitched what I thought was a brilliant concept – Sam leaps into a cop and he and his partner are ambushed. Sam is shot – and killed. The powers that be decide that Quantum Leap is too dangerous and close it down. Al and Donna then conspire with Gushy and Tina and they start it up again. Donna goes into the Chamber and Leaps – into Sam’s partner, before Sam is killed. Then she discovers that it’s the partner who killed Sam, and has to stop herself from shooting Sam down. She succeeds, Sam finishes his mission, and both Leap – Sam on to another mission, Donna back home. One of my trade-marks, as you see – something they could never have done on TV. Well, Ginger read it and shot the whole concept down. “The fans want *Sam*,” she pointed out. “He’s only in two chapters!” I loved Donna, who’s sacrificing her own life for the sake of the project, so Ginger suggested a leap back along Sam’s bloodline, and I got to do a Donna story that way.

Interestingly, I never pitch just one idea if I can help it, so my alternative pitch was for a story in which Sam leaps back to London in 1963. In passing, he meets William Hartnell, who’s just got a new gig on BBC TV… It’s a shame they didn’t buy that one!

FTN: And you originally wanted the Borg to be the big bad in Objective Bajor didn’t you? Now that was the episode everyone wanted to see!

JP: That’s what I thought. I’m amazed they never did it. I think they were holding onto it for a movie concept, but no DS9 films ever got made, so…

FTN:  So how would you have beaten the Borg in your book?

JP: I don’t remember! I’m sure it was something clever, but I’d have to go back through my old files to know for certain.

FTN: What shows do you watch now with such a range to choose from?

JP: I don’t watch most shows until they’re out on DVD or Blu-ray these days. “Game Of Thrones” is an exception – we watch that when it airs. Otherwise… “Bones”, “Supernatural”, “Warehouse 13”, “Once Upon A Time”, “Grimm”… There’s a lot of fun out there.

FTN: What’s your take on the new Doctor Who?

JP: I have the same problem with it that I had with the McCoy era – the Doctor is too powerful. Especially the Matt Smith version, which I’ve only just started watching. He’s too arrogant, so I’m hopefully he’ll do an almighty cosmic pratfall to humble him in one of the stories I haven’t yet seen. I think we need to get back to the bumbling Doctor, the uncontrollable Tardis and him just stumbling across problems he has to solve.

FTN: Is there any show you wanted to write for and never have?

JP: Yes indeed. I *really* wanted to do one of the “Alien Nation” novels. I was in talks about doing one when they cancelled the line. It’s a shame, because I’d been assigned one of the unproduced scripts to novelize and would have loved to have done that. But that led to my Trek novels, because they had the same editor. When the “Alien Nation” book fell through, he asked me: “Have you ever thought of writing a Trek novel?” I hadn’t, and told him so. But that evening I thought to myself, “Well, If I did write a Trek book, what would I do?” And that got me thinking. The following morning, I called the editor back and said: “Can I change my answer?” And that led to “Here There Be Dragons”.

FTN: And what advice would you give to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

JP: Don’t do it! Seriously. Because if anyone listens to that advice, they really shouldn’t be a writer. It’s something you really have to *need* to be. It’s not a calling, it’s an addiction. You write because you have to. Because not writing is impossible. So if you can do something else, if you want to do something else – do it.

FTN: John, again, thanks for taking the time to do this.I have a dozen other questions I’d love to ask but was afraid to, lol. Honestly I could talk to you all day

JP: Feel free to ask if you like! Talk soon…

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Marc is a self-confessed nerd. Ever since seeing Star Wars for the first time around 1979 he’s been an unapologetic fan of the Wars and still believes, with Clone Wars and now Underworld, we are yet to see the best Star Wars. He’s a dad of two who now doesn’t have the time (or money) to collect the amount of toys, comics, movies and books he once did, much to the relief of his long-suffering wife. In the real world he’s a graphic designer. He started Following the Nerd because he was tired of searching a million sites every day for all the best news that he loves and decided to create one place where you can go to get the whole lot. Secretly he longs to be sitting in the cockpit of his YT-1300 Corellian Transport ship with his co-pilot Chewie, roaming the universe, waiting for his next big adventure, but feels just at home watching cartoons with his kids….

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