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Cartmel Speaks

Andrew Cartmel interviewed by David Bishop and Felicity Scoones

In TSV issue 40, Andrew Cartmel spoke to TSV about his memories of working on the last three seasons of Doctor Who made in the eighties. In this long-awaited second instalment, Andrew talks about his career as a writer of Doctor Who novels and comic strips since the show came to an end in 1989. David and Felicity spoke to Andrew in August 1995.

David: When we left off you were being head hunted to go and work on Casualty.

Andrew: I left Doctor Who, that was a bit traumatic in itself.

Felicity: Did you know it was finishing when you left?

Andrew: Well they hadn't commissioned another season and we were sitting round twiddling our thumbs and I think John [Nathan-Turner] was a bit upset that I'd jumped ship, but it seemed like the right thing to do and nothing was happening. If I'd done another season of Who - I didn't especially want to do a fourth season - but if I had I think it would have been a very together one.

Felicity: In what way?

Andrew: Well I think I would have learned from my mistakes I would have got the scripts fastened down. I think it would have been quite slick because Sylvester and Sophie or whoever the companion was would have settled into their roles properly.

Felicity: In what way was it traumatic to leave?

Andrew: Well it wasn't really traumatic; it was just telling John that I was going on to do something else that was a bit traumatic. I think he would have liked it if I'd stayed, but then eventually he had to move on too because Who just ground to a halt.

Felicity: How long did you do Casualty for?

Andrew: I did it for one year, for one season, which was thirteen episodes. When I joined Casualty it became this huge hit. It had been this BBC warhorse, which was plodding along but suddenly it became this huge hit and it's stayed that way ever since.

The producer, Peter Norris, and I had disagreements throughout the year and at the end that came to a head and he told me he wasn't going to renew my contact. This wasn't really tantamount to sacking me because if I'd been a little more nimble I could have got my act together and gone on to something else at the BBC. In the old days if you worked within the BBC, once you were in, you were in and there was a kind of benevolent civil service aspect in that you could plod away behind the scenes and get things done. But this was at odds with the new commercial BBC where everybody had to justify their existence. Now they're casualizing labour which means that instead of taking people on for ever they take them on with a six month contract. So in this climate of insecurity I ended up without a job, which was quite shattering to me at the time. I'd been this writer beavering away in his garrett and when I got to the BBC I thought this is it, success. So I took it very hard to suddenly be without a job whereas if it happened now I could easily find a position. But I just thought 'This is terrible, I've lost my job, that's the end of the world,' and I ended up just sliding out of television as a result of this.

Felicity: How old were you then?

Andrew: I would have been thirty-one. I'm thirty-seven now. Colleagues gave me this long list of people to phone up but I was too demoralized really to make the phone calls and I very swiftly got a job working on magazines through a friend. It was desktop publishing which is basically doing magazines on computers and I've always been a computer buff, so this was fairly easy but I suddenly found myself being paid much less than I was worth. At the BBC I felt I was underpaid, outside working on this magazine was a considerable drop, an eight grand a year drop in my income, and so I was further demoralized when it seemed essential both from a career and financial point of view to start writing.

So whereas previously I had disdained the idea of doing a New Adventure because I wanted to write purely original stuff suddenly they were offering a couple of grand to do a book and I thought I'd better make up this shortfall in my income. So I got in touch with Peter Darvill-Evans. Virgin wanted huge chunks of manuscript before they signed, about fifteen thousand words, or maybe it was even more, maybe it was twenty-five thousand; it was a substantial chunk. Anyway, so I sat down and wrote this bleak, Blade Runner type of dystopian sequence set in New York with the Doctor and Ace and everything's falling apart and polluted and there's lots of violence.

Felicity: Have you been to New York?

Andrew: Yeah, I have actually, I spent a weekend there.

Felicity: Is that enough to write a book?

Andrew: Well, in this case it was because it's the future, and what little I knew about New York I did inject into the book, and I think sometimes you can even just create stuff from things you've read, obviously historical novels have to. But I do like to write about places I've been because you can say you've walked down this street and turned left and then there's another street and then you come to the sea front, although I despise travelogue and I despise doing research whenever I do write something. In the new book I've written something set in Hungary based on the place I was. I used place names because I was there. I think it does have a certain authority.

There's a writer called Neville Shute and one of his great virtues was he would talk about something like repairing an engine or doing something on a lathe with specific concrete terms. You couldn't read a whole book about that but chunks of that it really made the book readable because they lent an aura of reality to it. It's the same with this thing about giving street names. Also in a book which is often filled with dialogue and descriptions of different mind states it is very nice just to describe somebody cooking a meal or something, that's one of the things I did in Warlock; a sequence where Creed makes lunch for himself. I often think these basic, nailed down descriptions really bring the book to life for a reader.

My second book is better. I'm sure every writer says that, but it is better. It's less self-conscious, more of a proper story. The first one was sort of constricted with anxiety. It's very difficult for me to see any virtues in the first one because I was just too self-conscious when I wrote it. The great thing about the second one is I think it takes possession of the reader, not all the way through, but I think there's stretches in which it's very readable, and sort of sucks the reader along. The first one is a bit fragmentary. Which in my defence I have to say the same about superb writers like William Gibson; I think Gibson's great, but he's not a long distance writer. I think he's probably at his best writing short stories, and my first book is a bit like that I was trying like hell to write a really interesting book, but it was more a head thing than a heart thing. I tried to emulate books I'd read, or make something that looked like a book. Whereas a real book comes from a seething sea, it's really organic, it comes from the basic impulses.

I was forced by circumstance to write Warhead, and of course looking at that in a crystal ball-gazing, new-age optimistic way this was the best thing that possibly could have happened. Because the reason I didn't want to write a Doctor Who New Adventures was that I wanted to write my own stuff and I wanted to write art, I wanted to write a proper novel - it was the difference between doing genre fiction and literature. The problem with writing a literary novel is I never knew what the hell to write it about. I was very widely read, I knew what was good writing from bad writing and I could fashion a sentence or fashion a paragraph, but I couldn't for the life of me fashion a novel, not in the least because I didn't know what the hell to write about. That is the stumbling block for ninety-nine percent of people who would be writers today. What the hell do you write about? But as soon as you enter the ghetto of genre fiction this ceases to be a problem because a) you have to do the writing for money and b) there are ghetto requirements or ghetto necessities if you are commissioned to write a book which is part of an on-going series. There's no time to worry about this existential pressure of what should I write about. You're handed a format. So the thing that I was trying to avoid was a good thing. I was compelled to write, I had to write a science fiction novel, and obviously it had to be a Doctor Who novel and if I'd sat around waiting to write my own stuff, my own original stuff, who knows how long it would have taken because the only way you can be a writer is to write. You have to actually do some writing to get better.

Felicity: How did you go about organizing the proposal for your first novel?

Andrew: Well Peter [Darvill-Evans] had floated the idea to me earlier on and I coldly rebuffed him, but of course this reversed itself swiftly when I needed the money and I got on the blower to him and the next thing was he wanted this huge chunk of writing, so I did that, I wrote this huge chunk of what later became not the beginning of Warhead, or the end of Warhead, but the middle of Warhead, oddly enough. So I sent this off to him and he liked it. It was basically a cop novel set in the future, about two New York cops and he liked it and then he came back with the terms of the contract which were so low that I said 'No.' My agent has been grateful to me ever since because he said 'It's so rare to get one of those clients who could actually say no to a bad deal, everybody just knuckles under.' I said 'No, I won't do it', so he could go back and sincerely say 'No, I won't do it unless they improve the terms'. And they did improve the terms. I don't want to paint Peter as a villain here, I do like Peter, I think he's got a lot going for him, but at the time the deal was even more parsimonious than it is at the moment. So what happened was they offered me a better deal and subsequently all the other Who writers got the same better deal, so I'd struck a blow for writers' rights here, but of course all I was after was covering my own back and, let's be honest about it, improving my own earnings.

Felicity: Had you read the other New Adventures before you wrote?

Andrew: No, and this isn't like a judgement on New Adventures, it's like a judgement on books generally. For a period of my life, I suppose for about ten years, I have for all my life been the most voracious of readers, like reading a book a day for most of my literate years, then I reached a point where I could hardly read anything anymore. I didn't really read any of the New Adventures, but then I wasn't really reading anything. There was a period of several years there where I was in the wilderness because I could find so few things that I enjoyed, stuff that I could really sit down and read and enjoy. I'm gradually emerging from that, partly because I will read stuff now for the ideas and ignore the lapses in style, partly also because I had reached a point where I thought I'd discovered all the good writers, which was a bit depressing, but in recent years I've discovered that other writers that I'd never really paid attention to, or heard of, who are as good as the other ones. Also I got out of the habit of reading. I don't know why these things happen but I think maybe I'd read so much and absorbed so much I needed a couple of years off from it.

Ben Aaronovitch's stuff is exceptional. I read Transit. I liked it very much with this reservation which I frequently voiced to Ben, and it's the same thing that is wrong with Warhead, and it is that it's a string of brilliant vignettes, there's no driving, basic plot to lure you on. If Ben could have cracked that it would be a stupendous novel. Ben was always an extraordinary screenwriter and I'd think he'd be an extremely good novelist too.

David: Somebody once told me that Warhead was actually a novel you'd already written, which you had then embroidered into a Doctor Who New Adventure.

Andrew: If that had been the case it would have been a very fascinating Doctor Who New Adventure. One novel I wrote was called Deborah Day, and it was about one day in the life of this guy who's decided to seduce his best friend's girlfriend, Deborah, while his best friend is away touring the world or something and that would have made a very extraordinary New Adventure. Had it only been so simple to write Warhead. Warhead was written painfully from scratch and it was quite a laborious process because I didn't really know what I was doing. Nobody really does when they're doing the first novel.

When you're on your first novel you don't know that you can do it. You don't know until you see the book come out that you're actually going to finish your whole book completely and they're going to print it up and put your name on the cover. The reverse to that of course, is that once you've done it, the second novel is very much easier than the first one; basically I'd done one before, so I knew that I could do it again.

Felicity: So if you hadn't been out of a job would you have written one?

Andrew: No. What I viewed as bad circumstances were of course good circumstances forcing me to commit myself to paper, to lose my virginity in print as it were.

Felicity: And retrospectively you're glad you did.

Andrew: Absolutely.

Felicity: Why?

Andrew: Got it out of the way. My starting point was, well ever since I learned to read I've wanted to be a novelist, to write very good books that other people read. I used to think the way to do that was to read a lot of books, and that's part of the process, but I always imagined in my mind that you'd read a certain number of books and then you'd reach this critical mass and you'd just write, you'd write books. But it doesn't work like that. The only way you can become a writer is through writing. I thought I'd reach this point and then magically sit down and write my book. But of course you have to be forced to write, writing's hard work and you only learn through doing. So being forced to write the first Doctor Who book, I found a way to start learning my craft through doing it under fire.

When I first started being a writer it was like being one of those insects stuck on one of those sticky papers where you can't move, I'd have a scene set in a room where somebody has to walk across the room and I'd think my god, do I have to describe the chair he's sitting in, his shoes, the colour of the carpet, each step he takes? What do you describe? I knew what was going to happen, but you can get terribly lost in the mechanics of expressing the simplest things. You soon begin to learn how much you can leave out and the terseness with which one can express an idea. I think the problem that I had at first was this cumbersome, very circuitous way of getting the show on the road. Getting things moving in the book was really quite difficult at first.

David: I think Warhead is interesting because during the McCoy era there is an obvious attempt to avoid the boring setting things up and throws you straight into the action. Warhead by comparison begins with a whole fifty pages of a series of vignettes before the story starts that shows the Doctor putting all the chess pieces on the board on all the right places so that when he arrives the game is already rolling and he can go from there. I think that's what makes Warhead.

Andrew: David's not the first person to say that they found Warhead very fragmentary. They were kind enough to say that they found it very satisfying and gratifying that these fragments did indeed come together and form a picture and it was a relief to me too. But I must say that I think that that was one of the flaws of Warhead. If I was writing it now it would be simpler structurally.

I've always been a great admirer of Modesty Blaise, which is a great comic strip and a great series of novels, and I met Peter O'Donnell, who is the creator of Modesty Blaise, at a signing and I sent him Warhead, and he was kind enough to write a letter telling me what he thought about it. One of the things he said was that he found it confusing because it was cutting between too many strands of the story and he said he always tries to have no more that two strands going at once and cut back and forth between those two. In Warlock you'll find a definite attempt to do that, because I think he's right, you can hand the reader too much.

Felicity: Was it because of his letter that you decided to do that or had you come to that conclusion anyway?

Andrew: Well I never like being told what to do, so when I read that I thought 'He's wrong', but in my heart of hearts I knew he was right and I very much agreed with him and came to accept that and did it in the next book, regardless of how I felt about matters.

Felicity: In Warhead, why did you make Justine and Vincent teenagers?

Andrew: Justine, she was supposed to be quite a shocking character, and the younger she was the better because she was one of these seen-too-much too young characters. As for Vincent being a teenager, partly he had to interlink with Justine in a romantic configuration, but also he was a kind of an anorak, a gaming type, a fanboy type, so it was very natural for him to be a teenager. The other factor that accounts for them being teenagers is I am a great admirer of Stephen King, and he evokes that teen-America image. I very much wanted to write a Stephen King kind of book, I was consciously reading Stephen King, I remember being at the launderette with the drying going round and round, reading a Stephen King book and trying to learn what Stephen King did. He has naturalistic, modern environments, and that is one of the reasons why King's stuff works, it's set in small town, middle class America. If you read Firestarter, the way he describes the kid's abilities, a lot of that bleeds through into Vincent.

David: Trying to keep the demon inside.

Andrew: Stephen King has a down to earth way of describing things, and that comes through in Vincent. His power is often described as like a gathering storm; quite down-to-earth metaphors for what's happening.

David: Rooted in a reality that you can get to grips with.

Andrew: And I attribute that to King.

Felicity: In Warhead you had a scene with Ace and Vincent in the bath and it seemed like something gratuitously put in for the fanboys.

David: I enjoyed it immensely.

Andrew: I enjoyed writing it immensely, so I don't think it was anything gratuitously put in for the fanboys, although I sincerely hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. Do you mean because it was a 'tits and ass' kind of scene?

Felicity: It seemed like the scene in Timewyrm: Genesys, where Ace is also standing in a bathtub being scraped by wooden combs, which seemed to be put in to show that this is not a kiddie novel.

Andrew: Oh, I see what you mean; it was definitely not put in for that purpose. That was one of the scenes I was happy with because it grew organically. What I liked about it was that it was sincerely erotic, but it was also kind of edgy because Vincent is kind of drowning while it happens. This whole sequence is good to me because he flashes in and out of consciousness and he thinks he's in an erotic virtual reality game.

Felicity: MacPet; I liked the name.

Andrew: It works on one level because it is erotic from one angle, but from Ace's point of view she's trying to stop him drowning.

David: Warlock literally splits into two narratives, you have Bernice chasing around the drugs in New York, and you have Ace and the animal rights activists being tied up. And the curious thing when you're reading Warlock is that the two stories start at the same point in time but the Bernice story seems to take place over a much longer period of physical time whereas the Ace story seems to take about a day and a half.

Andrew: This is very interesting, and something that obsesses me from time to time because I am aware when cutting back and forth between the two narratives, and this is true of Warchild too, is that time is running at different rates. But at the same time, if you look at it in the context of the plot I inter-cut it in a convincing way, it's just that time moves at different rates from chapter to chapter. When the two plot strands connect they always connect okay, but in between times they run at different rates which is weird, but in my own little head it all makes sense. In Othello there's an act which runs from the beginning of the night until dawn, and it runs for about fifteen minutes, and it always strikes me as it being stupid of people to say well it can't be the whole of the night because it only runs for fifteen minutes. It can. It's art and it definitely portrays the feeling of a whole night passing.

David: So how was Warchild, which you're currently writing, conceived? To what extent is Warchild the end of the trilogy? Is it a true sequel, or is it just the same characters again?

Andrew: It has the same characters later in their lives, and it has its roots in everything that started in the earlier books, but it's not a trilogy in the sense that the plot is constructed in three acts, it is a trilogy in the sense that these characters have grown organically through the books. I keep writing about them because I know more about them each time, and it makes sense to close the trilogy. The advantage of writing linked books - there's the obvious commercial one that three books will hang together better in the market place - but at the same time it is great that you know your characters and you can extend them, and it is a pleasure to do that.

David: In Warlock you certainly put them through the wringers emotionally.

Andrew: Wait 'til you read Warchild.

David: It's like creating your own ensemble cast.

Andrew: Gore Vidal said the same thing. He said that every writer has his own travelling company of actors in his head, and even though they're different characters with different names the same types keep cropping up. Although obviously one doesn't want just the same clichés cropping up, I think there is some truth in that.

Felicity: What plans do you have for when you finish Warchild?

Andrew: I'm in the middle of writing a novel called Rush Hour; I'm being unfaithful to Warchild. The intention is to write a best-selling novel and this is my first best-seller. It's a medical thriller which makes use of medical lore gleaned while doing Casualty.

Felicity: How did you name your books?

Andrew: Warhead is basically a pun because obviously the warhead is the tip of the missile that detonates, but Vincent has this power in his head to make these catastrophic things happen, so it's really a nickname for him, because he can create war with his head. It occurred to me that I could have a series of books with the word war in the title, like Warlock. I've always liked word plays.

Felicity: Were there a lot of changes between your initial submission and the book which you eventually wrote?

Andrew: The trouble is when you sit down and write an outline you're one person, and months later, when you actually write the book, you're a different person, and of course you end up writing a different story because you are a different person, and because books take off in a certain direction, and you inexorably end up writing different things from what you intended. That's not a bad thing.

Felicity: What about editorial intervention?

Andrew: Virgin have been very good about that. They're smart enough to know that books grow in different directions from your original idea. Although I think that as you write you become more professional and you're more likely to adhere to your original storyline because you've written books before and you are more able to imagine the totality of it.

David: Let's leap off novels for a moment and do comic strips. Was Fellow Travellers the first one that you've written?

Andrew: Yes, at least that was the first time anyone paid me to attempt to write a comic strip.

David: I know you're not a great fan of the artwork.

Andrew: Oh that's not true. Part One I thought was absolutely fantastic. I think Arthur Ranson is capable of turning out incredible images. The thing about Fellow Travellers is I think the first part was lovingly drawn and the last two episodes were rushed and embarrassing to look at. The other thing I had against it is there's a climactic scene where the old woman turns into a monster and I left it a full page spread so the artist could demonstrate his genius but instead it's just embarrassingly naff. This was my first experience working with artists, and it is the same thing as being a screen writer and writing a script, it goes through a transformation because other people are involved. So I guess it was a good lesson in that respect.

David: Have you ever read it since it was published?

Andrew: Yeah, there were some scenes which I still like. After that I did a Cyberman story called The Good Soldier.

David: It's weird because it starts off and lulls you into a false sense of security. They're driving across America, it's the fifties and everyone's looking for UFOs and all that sort of stuff. Which was then mined by David McIntee in First Frontier as one of the New Adventures.

Andrew: I always got the impression that that was the companion piece to The Good Soldier, that it had similar rifts in it. I've always wanted to do comics. What I like best in that strip is the gruesome cyber-interface stuff, while this guy has to rewire him and his legs have to come off. I like gruesome man-machine interface, it's quite cyberpunk.

Felicity: Can you tell us more about your conception of the Doctor and his background?

Andrew: Normally I flinch at that kind of question. Reading The Also People, Ben's second New Adventure, he's got some great background about the Doctor; Ben brings things like that to life and makes them interesting.

The reason I would have flinched at that question is because when I was on Who, the whole mythos, the whole trappings, the whole background of the Doctor could have easily become a straitjacket in the sense that he did this before and we have to adhere to this and we have to follow the pattern and a lot of the Gallifrey-based and Time Lord-based stories bored the hell out of me although there were some great ones too. I was always of the temperament that I liked the mysterious Doctor, who the hell is this guy? And as soon as well he's from Gallifrey, he's from the third house on the left, he's a Time Lord, there's lots of other Time Lords, the whole thing diminished the Doctor, and I still defend that stance. So I took this metaview where, he is from Gallifrey but perhaps he's still a mystery, and some of the things I worked on in the show were to say, yes, he is a Time Lord, but perhaps he's more than that, let's re-inject the mystery into it.

Felicity: So in your mind you didn't have a concept of the Doctor, just questions you wanted to pose for the viewer.

Andrew: If what you're saying is that I wanted the Doctor to be a mysterious figure, more an absence than a presence, that's true.

Felicity: I meant, instead of having this idea this is the Doctor, this is his past, set in stone and you were just going to bring it out bit by bit, you actually had a series of questions you wanted to form in the viewer's mind about what is the Doctor, without any particular answers.

Andrew: Yeah, I did want to keep it open-ended and mysterious. I think you can do that even while preserving all these other stories, all that history and the trappings that go with it and say that all that is true, but it's just one angle on the truth because there's a bigger truth in the background.

The other thing is fans often think they're preserving Doctor Who, but ultimately it's the programme makers who are controlling the show. They could make something totally contrary to all the mythology and fans would just have to live with it.

David: I think one of the significant things about when you were script editing the show you had the willingness to ignore the fans to a degree whereas JNT is characterized by recognising the fans as a significant part of the show and playing to the crowd a bit.

Andrew: It was a balancing act. I never had any objection to doing stuff which was for the fans. I'm a former fanboy; I love a good reference as much as anybody else. I know it's not a primary purpose but when I was editing it I could echo stuff from previous stories and really make it work well. I was always in favour of that being done, although not at the expense of other things.

David: That's the difference between Attack of the Cybermen and Remembrance of the Daleks. Attack is just hung up on references to twenty-year-old stories that nobody but fans can remember. Whereas Remembrance will evoke an era, but gets on with telling the story.

Andrew: The fans are a hard core, but they're only a very small proportion of the regular viewers.

David: I think it's a problem that you don't get in British TV shows now, but you get in British comics, in that the audience has shrunk and the fanbase has become more vocal and a slightly bigger minority, still a minority, but they're the ones that speak out, so it takes a certain strength of will to fly in the face of vocal fan opinion and say, we recognise your presence but this is the story we're going to tell and you can like it or lump it. I think it's a problem and this applies to the New Adventures, it's a problem having people growing up and their only reference is what has gone before within that genre, having fans become writers.

Andrew: It's like a spiral because there is a diminishing circle of reference.

David: It's an ever-decreasing circle, the fans become so focused that eventually you reach the vanishing point.

Andrew: Exactly.

The Doctor Who works of Andrew Cartmel

(complete as of 1996)

Novels

  • Cat's Cradle: Warhead (1992)
  • Warlock (1995)
  • Warchild (1996)

Comic strips

  • Fellow Travellers, art by Arthur Ranson, Doctor Who Magazine (DWM) issues 164-166 (1990); reprinted in The Mark of Mandragora, graphic novel (1993)
  • The Good Soldier, art by Mike Collins & Steve Pini, DWM issues 175-178 (1991)
  • Evening's Empire, art by Richard Piers Rayner, part one (of six) published in DWM issue 180 (1991); published complete in Doctor Who Classic Comics Autumn Holiday Special (1993)
  • Ravens, art by Brian Williamson & Cam Smith, DWM issues 188-190 (1992)

Short stories

  • Prelude: Warlock, DWM issue 221 (1994)
  • Meridians, DWM issues 227-229 (1995)

This item appeared in TSV 46 (January 1996).

Related Articles: Andrew Cartmel Interview
Index nodes: Cat's Cradle: Warhead, Warlock, Warchild