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Doctor Who | News | 01 January 2004

Interview: Lance Parkin

A History of the author, including his Trading Futures.

Doctor Who: A History of the Universe was a brave topic to tackle for a reference book. What kind of reaction did you get from other Who academics, and is there anything about the chronology you've since reconsidered?

The Who academics seemed to like it, although a few purists questioned whether the books should have been in there. It was first published as a fanzine – and I sent it to Andrew Pixley, who's eyes glazed over when I told him what it was, because apparently people come up to him twice a week to tell him they've þsolved UNIT dating' and the like.

But he liked it enough to make suggestions and to write a foreword, in which he said some very nice things. Everyone has their own little theories, and so not everyone has agreed with every word of it. But on the whole I think it was received well, and it squared the odd circle or two. The secret was that I wasn't imposing my theories, just reporting what was said in the programme.

There are places – the twenty-first century being one of them – where you have to play around a bit, because different stories say such different things. People get worked up about stuff, but that's the appeal of the game. I always made sure to present all the evidence, and it's quite fun to see people make a case against me using evidence that they didn't know about until they read my book!

The Infinity Doctors was a prestigious commissioning from BBC books. Why do you think you were the man they entrusted with celebrating the Doctor's 35th Anniversary?

1998 wasn't exactly awash with anniversary fervour – a thirty-fifth anniversary is an odd one, isn't it? I don't think there's even an adjective – I used to tell people it was the Diamonique anniversary. So I don't think the BBC were exactly falling over themselves to celebrate. I suspect I got the gig because I was the only person who'd spotted it was an þanniversary year'.

The original plan was to do a two book thing, with Kate Orman and Jon Blum writing the other half. Their book, þMentor', was about an old Time Lord who'd gone mad. We knew that there was this sort of observer effect in the Who universe – this idea of þobserved history', with the Time Lords as the observers. So we had the idea þwhat if one of the observers went mad?' – he'd see stuff, and by observing it, he'd make it real, but he was loopy, so that meant the universe ended up as mad as he was.

And with that in mind I wrote a PDA in which the Fourth Doctor and the Mary Tamm Romana fight a monster called Centro (which I've since learned is the name of the bus company in Birmingham!), and he could bend time and space. And he bent it so that the Doctor never left Gallifrey, and was stuck in this dreadful place, dreaming of exploring the universe. It waså unconsciously, I hasten to addå a complete rip off of the Alan Moore Superman story For the Man Who Has Everything.

Steve Cole, the editor at the time, liked that chapter and hated everything else about it, so I reworked it. But as soon as I did that, I realised this was a unique chance to do a story that could be outside the normal þcontinuity' å about continuity. Which I found quite a fun idea. And I also realised that most of the readers would be expecting the bit where the universe goes all wobbly and turns back into the þreal' Doctor Who universe, and once I decided not to do that, it was very liberating.

The idea was that there would be a war criminal type in both our books, and depending on which one you read first, you'd get a completely different appreciation of the situation. If you read the book in which he was an old librarian who just wanted to be left alone first, you'd think the Doctor was a bully. If you read the book where you saw him in his prime, massacring innocents, you'd want the Doctor to murder him in cold blood. The vestige of that idea ended up in Beige Planet Mars.

Then it became clear that Kate and Jon would be too busy doing Seeing I to do Mentor. A lot of the ideas from it ended up in Unnatural History, and if you read The Infinity Doctors and Unnatural History one after the other, you can see that they share a lot of the themes, images and so on.

Having tackled Adric in Cold Fusion, what would you say were the character's good points?

He proved to be mortal.

No... it's really embarrassing. I found a school exercise book from 1981 where I did a write up of The Keeper of Traken novel, and I say Adric's my favourite character.

I think he probably was an identification figure for a lot of the audience. He works well with Tom, where he essentially just stands in a corner and gives the Doctor enough space to do his thing. He's hopeless with Davison.

I wrote an article on this for the Enlightenment fanzine, and it's on their website. I'd advise anyone who's now got a taste for Who authors making an ass of themselves to look there.

Rare books of yours such as The Dying Days are now going for silly money on E-bay. What are your thoughts on that?

There's a craven, greedy part of me that wishes I hadn't given away all my author's copies, because I'd have got more selling them on E-bay than I did for writing it! And I could have a lovely revenue stream if I got a pound every time I got an email asking if I had a spare copy.

Contrary to rumours at the time, it had a normal print run – what Virgin couldn't do was reprint it, they were forbidden to by the terms of the licence, even though it sold out six weeks before its official release date. It was the nearest thing I've ever been involved with to a þphenomenon' – it just vanished from the shops, and the shops were furious they couldn't get any more.

The thing about E-bay is that it's not like a comics shop or something just slapping a silly price on it and looking for a sucker to buy it – people bid that much money because that's what they think it's worth. It's a buyer-driven market in the sense that the buyer decides the price. That said, I was contracted to write a book that I hope would provide £6 worth of entertainment. People have spent hundreds on The Dying Days. I hope it wasn't a disappointment.

But I've always regretted that not everyone who wanted to read it got to read it. It was a good book, I thought, one I was incredibly proud of, and of being asked to do. I've been looking for a way to get the book to everyone that wants to read it...

Having written the Eighth Doctor's first original adventure in print - has he developed in the way you would have liked him too?

Oh yes. Re-reading The Dying Days, it's amazing how much things have moved on in the last five years. But that's the whole point of a running series – take any five years of the TV show (and certainly any hundred stories, which is how many EDAs there have been) and the show changes beyond measure. Different writers, different producers, a completely different cast. The whole point of Doctor Who is that it changes, relentlessly riffing on the popular culture of the time, recasting the fears of the day into scary monsters.

Something we all realised when we did our second eighth Doctor book was that you can't keep having this bouncy, child-like lead character. The challenge was to give him some depth without giving him angst. I really think the Earth arc books (The Burning – Escape Velocity) recast him as a viable central character, one who's like the Doctor we know and love – capable of extraordinary brilliance, or of sulking like a little kid.

The adjective we were all throwing around in 1996 was þByronic' – but Byron wasn't a guy who nancyed about picking flowers: he raised armies, shagged his step-sister on her mother's grave and called for the overthrow of governments. We've now got a Doctor who's extrapolated from the portrayal in the TVM, reaching the potential of it, rather than one who's just copied from it.

Anji's great, too. A character who feels like a real person, not just a character with a backstory. Someone who's of the moment. A companion who you can explain to a new reader without an essay and a six book reading list.

One of the great things about the EDAs now is that you can just pick one up and read it. If people are reading them all, you can see we're building to something, but not at the expense of new readers. Not that long ago, the net was full of þwhich book do I have to read to understand this month's book?' threads. Not any more.

Had the TVM gone to series å well, it would have debuted around the time Buffy did, possibly before. And it would have changed from the TVM. Think of how Star Trek: Next Gen changed over its run, despite having a format that really resisted change. If anything, we've not changed enough.

Do you know what Virgin's plans for the character were had they retained their license?

They literally didn't have any, because they knew within a week or two of the TVM that the licence was going. Rebecca Levene, the commissioning editor of the range, and I only discussed the one book.

Hypothetically, I think it would have been a good excuse to draw a line and come up with an entirely new þfeel' for the range. They'd have had either Benny or Grace as the companion – definitely not Sam – and that would mean that the Doctor and companion were far more þequals' than they'd ever been before.

I could really see the Doctor and companion having a Steed and Peel relationship – on screen, both equal to the task of fighting monsters, off screen shagging like rabbits, even though they never quite come out and admit it.

One thing I also thought of – St Oscars in the Benny books, the university she worked at - provided a useful base and a cast of recurring supporting characters (about two of whom ever recurred, but we'll say no more about that). And in the TVM, it really looks like the Doctor is based on Gallifrey. So he might have been based on Gallifrey in the EDNAs.

I quite like the idea of the Doctor as a teacher, raising the next generation of Time Lords, now the Time Lords are fertile again. That would've also brought a new dynamic into the books. And it's what he's doing in The Infinity Doctors, of course. So perhaps The Infinity Doctors is set in the universe where Virgin kept the licence. Or perhaps I'm extrapolating wildly. I'd stress that these discussions never took place at the time, these are just my guesses.

Practically, they had the writers they had, and it's not a wild leap to say that the early EDNAs might have ended up with the same authors as the first Benny books. Possibly even the same books! But I'd imagine Paul Cornell would have written the first one, then Matt Jones and Justin, with Vampire Science not far behind. I don't think in the parallel universe where Virgin kept the licence that we'd be looking at a completely unrecognisable range.

A lot of the early EDAs (all of them, I think, up to Alien Bodies, not including Vampire Science) were unused Virgin New Adventures, I think – a fair few were out and out NA rejects, so obviously they wouldn't have made the cut. The biggest shift in the range would have come when Rebecca left Virgin, which would have happened at the same time.

I suspect, by now, that we'd be pretty much where we are. In the end, despite all the announcements to the contrary and a couple of false starts, the BBC Who book format and writers guidelines started off as close to Virgin as they could get without actually jumping into a hot air balloon and opening a chain of Megastores. I said at the time that they weren't so much stepping into Virgin's shoes as mugging them for their Nikes.

Why the three-year break between The Infinity Doctors and Father Time?

Quite simply I was working on Emmerdale as a storyline writer, and that took up all my time. Well, that and my Dalek book, Enemy of the Daleks, fell through. It would have come late in 1999 – I keep saying that Parallel 59 replaced it, and Steve Cole keeps correcting me that was the book before that. But I thought I was leading into Shadows of Avalon.

Anyway, it didn't get very far – a synopsis, then half a reworked synopsis – before I realised that I didn't really have the time, and the BBC weren't that keen on pursuing the Nation estate for the rights.

I only sat it out for a year or so – Father Time was commissioned at the same time as the other Earth arc books, in about October 1999. And Enemy of the Daleks was being discussed around autumn 1998.

I'm glad I had the break – I'd been writing Who fiction non-stop for a few years, and going away really recharged the batteries and gave me new perspectives.

Tell us your thoughts about creating a daughter for the Doctor.

It was a blatant attempt to write þmy Human Nature'. I love that book, and what I love about it is having the Doctor confront his human side, and find himself wanting. That line about þtwo hearts and no love'. The Doctor can do all these fantastical things, but he's not quite a full human being, he's not quite emotionally literate.

As I've said before, when I'm writing a Doctor Who book, I think of the most absurd non-Who like idea that I can, and try to get it to work. And the idea here was an image of the Doctor hugging a young girl, and saying þyou're my daughter, and I'll always love you'. It's just not the sort of thing he does. So how did he get there?

I was really worried about Miranda stealing the limelight, but in the end she's a wonderful mirror for the Doctor - she really helps define him. I didn't write Human Nature, but I got a good book out of it.

Tell us about your latest novel, Trading Futures.

OK. It's set in the near future, sometime in the 2010s, with the Eurozone (basically a Eurosceptic nightmare federal EU) on the brink of war with the United States. Europe is an emerging superpower, and America has been the only superpower for a generation, so there's friction, with Britain caught in the middle as the two blocs gear up for a war.

The various secret services of the world are aware that someone's selling a time machine, and they've realised that anyone with a time machine will have a massive advantage. So they go after the time machine. And the Doctor and friends land right in the middle of all this, and have to prevent a world war, not to mention various nasty people and things getting the time machine.

No-one had written a þnear future' book for a while, and I think we're in that mood right now – new century, new scientific advances and political developments.

Judging from the book, you're as much of a Bond fan as David McIntee. Why do you think Who books in this style work so well?

Bond's an action adventure series, like Who. The films started about the time Doctor Who did on TV, and they changed the lead actors, and both are British, and self-aware and products of their time. So they sort of track each other, like a pair of weird cousins who hate each other and only meet every third Christmas but turn up wearing the same tie. They're completely unlike each other, but you can tell they somehow fall into the same set, and a lot of Who fans are also Bond fans.

Everyone knows Bond, they know the set up, the icons, the clichés. So it's easy to play on those conventions.

For Trading Futures, Bond represents a very specific þspirit of England'. Cosgrove is (and I mean þis' here in the very precise, non-trademark violating, sense of the word) the Sean Connery Bond, but one who never retired and who's been a secret agent for fifty years. So he's about eighty, and all the time he's just been piling on more muscles and getting more wrinkled, and ever more set in his ways and bitter and anachronistic.

He's Sean Connery in The Rock, as drawn by Frank Miller, and by now he's been promoted to M. And he's got it in for the Doctor, because the Doctor is everything he isn't, and more to the point, the Doctor outsmarts him in Chapter One.

God, don't you want to buy this book already?

Anyway, he's in the book as representing that part of the UK that will forever not be a part of Europe. A maddening mix of xenophobia and global vision, of pragmatism but belief in his country. A Little Englander without a drop of English blood in him.

Doctor Who hit the reset button with The Burning. How do you find writing for a Doctor with less baggage? Is it liberating or restrictive? Ditto the destruction of Gallifrey.

I love the EDAs at the moment. They aren't perfect, but they're better than they've been for years. Anyone who's not reading them – just find a copy of The City of the Dead or Intelligent Tigers or Hope or Anachrophobia or Book of the Still. Don't be put off by the þongoing story', just read one of those books – or pretty much any of them since The Burning - and I'm sure you'll find something in there that you enjoy.

Writing for them is great, too. I'd always relied on þcontinuity references' in my books, and I still do to an extent – but references to the spirit, not the letter. It's good to be looking forward, not back. It's good to have the Doctor centre stage, as the protagonist.

The destruction of Gallifrey is useful because we've now got a Doctor who's operating without a safety net – he's the universe's last line of defence. The twist being that he doesn't quite realise that. We've lost a dreary planet that was already looking a bit creaky by the time of the second story fully set there, twenty-five years ago, and gained a real sense of dynamism and change.

Tell us about writing Primeval for Big Finish. What, if anything did you change about the Fifth Doctor or Nyssa and their relationship, and why revisit Traken?

With most Big Finish audios, they've got an idea for a story, and approach writers with it. And that's what happened with Primeval – Gary Russell asked for something set in the past of Traken, which explained why Nyssa had all those psychic powers in Time-Flight.

I've got no problem doing that, it's sometimes really useful to have a clear brief, particularly in a running series. You can spend two years just coming up with ideas other people have had, if you're not careful. And if you don't like the brief, you walk away.

I'm not sure I changed too much – neither Davison nor Sutton really sound like they did in 1982, so I have a couple of references to the Doctor looking a bit older, and he's more paternalistic to Nyssa and the younger characters. I deliberately gave the Doctor a few jokes, but they mostly got cut out. I tried to give him that energy he has in Androzani, that edge of desperation stuff. I think Davison puts in a fantastic performance, actually.

It's odd, it's really split opinion – half the people are calling it the worst CD Big Finish have ever done, half think it's great. I don't think it's perfect, I certainly don't think the script is perfect, but I think it works. A couple of the people who've disliked it have said things like þpeople keep saying Traken is the perfect society, but it's a bit dreary and repressive' å which is sort of like the whole point of the whole thing. It's about people living in a gilded cage, and doing things that don't match up to their ideals.

How did co-authoring Beige Planet Mars with Mark Clapham come about? Do you like that kind of collaborative process?

It came about because Virgin needed a book quickly, because Gareth Roberts was down to write one, and he'd just been made Story Editor on Emmerdale, so he couldn't do it, and I was writing The Infinity Doctors, so I couldn't write a whole one. And the first thing Gareth did was hire Rebecca Levene, the book's editor, and the third thing he did was get me onboard. So that kind of messed that plan up.

I'd known Mark for years, he wrote a fan novella which was... well, I was going to say þbrilliant'. It wasn't brilliant. þBrilliant' would be pushing it, but it had brilliant bits, and a couple of really brilliant characters. It was set in York, and there was a bit with one of the cleaners at the Railway Museum, and his dark secret was that he really hated trains, so every day he was coming in to lovingly clean these things he really couldn't stand. It was just a paragraph, but a really funny one.

And he had this Benny plot and characters looking for a story and a setting, and I had a Benny story and a setting, but no plot or characters. And we slapped them together and that was Beige Planet Mars. I honestly can't remember who wrote some bits of it. We're on the same wavelength on most things. Which is faintly alarming, because he likes Daphne and Celeste. Although it's more alarming for him to realise he's like me, I'd have thought.

I really enjoyed it, but it was written quickly, it was written when we were both busy with a million other things. And we got to three chapters before the end, and then realised we had not even the slightest clue how to end the book. Which is readily apparent to everyone that's read it.

What did you make of the audio adaptation of Just War?

I thought, at that time, that it was the best thing Big Finish had done (back then, remember, they hadn't done that much!). I liked the script Jac Rayner wrote. Lisa Bowerman, who plays Benny, is a genius.

I wrote I Scream for her on the strength of Just War, she was the main reason for doing Extinction Event, and I've even got her to take photos for my new Emmerdale book (as well as acting, she's a professional photographer – her work appears in Dreamwatch and DWM, amongst other places). It came out the week before the Who audio launch, so it sold about six copies, but I really think Just War's good.

What else have you been working on, and what's next from Lance Parkin?

I've been very busy. It's Emmerdale's thirtieth anniversary year, and I've been working there on the big anniversary book, out in September. Lots of lovely new photos, literally hundreds of archive ones (I spent a week in there, looking through tens of thousands of contact sheets).

I did the Pocket Essential Alan Moore, a guide to the comics writer, which has proved to be one of the bestsellers of that range. I wrote the tie-in book to SoapStars, the only reality TV talent show that didn't catch the public imagination. I was hoping to retire on the royalties from that, but I've had to settle for just paying the mortgage for the next year. It's a good book, though, I'm really proud of it.

What else? Stuff in the works, mainly – first out will be contributions to the Benny anthology and the Faction Paradox one. I've got some other hush-hush Who things, and possibly another Emmerdale at War novel. And I've got an EDA proposal in with Justin called Warlords of Utopia. So I'm keeping busy.


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