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Gary Gillatt - Doctor Who Magazine Editor

Interviewed By Paul Scoones

Gary Gillatt's name should be familiar to anyone who has read any issue of Marvel's Doctor Who Magazine published since early 1995, which is when he took over from Gary Russell as editor of DWM.

From an early age, Gary Gillatt was immersed in Doctor Who. He lived very close to the now closed Blackpool Doctor Who exhibition in the north of England. Gary still remembers the exhibition with great fondness. "Any TSV readers who have perhaps made it to the UK to see either the Longleat, MOMI or Llangollen exhibitions will still have no reference points for how fantastic the Blackpool display was - a massive, rambling, scary, underground celebration of Doctor Who. At that impressionable age of eight it made the series so much more immediate. The displays, lighting and sound brought the series to life before my eyes in a very real sense."

The manager of the Blackpool exhibition moved to Gary's street and used the Doctor's car Bessie - which was one of the exhibits - to travel to and from the exhibition each day. At the age of ten, Gary recalls, "I was making sure I was leaving the house at the right time each morning to have a lift to school in the Doctor's own car! That's how weird my life has been!"

The Blackpool exhibition closed in 1985, and the fans that used to regularly visit the display, including Gary, set up a local fan club. "I got heavily involved, more-or-less running the group for a while and editing a number of issues of our fanzine Tower."

Gary left his involvement in fandom behind when, in 1989, he left Blackpool to study for a degree in physics at Durham University. "At University I basically threw my chances for a decent degree away and instead gave myself fully to, in turn, the running of my college's student committee, the student newspaper, and the central student union. In my year the newspaper did very well. We won some awards and I felt encouraged to completely abandon my physics degree and look for a career in publishing.

"After four months on the dole I landed a job with a publisher called Hamerville Magazines and moved to London. I was working on a very unsexy magazine called Local Authority Building and Maintenance - a trade journal for local council building contractors - but I had, at least, got my foot on the first rung of the ladder. My editor was very encouraging and I pushed myself forward to work on the company's two consumer-press titles; so I was soon writing for the interior design magazine HomeFlair and the middle-aged women's glossy, Chic - for which I was deputy arts editor.

Before I even took my interview for that first job, I rather pushily wrote to Gary Russell and asked if I could visit the DWM office to bone-up on the practicalities of work on a colour magazine. He kindly granted me an audience and I popped along on, of all days, 23rd November 1993 - I told you my life had been strange!

"I got the job, came down to London and got to know Gary very well, along with the wider circle of London fans, may of whom wrote for DWM. I pestered Gary for freelance work and he allowed me to do a few 'safe' things. Under the pseudonym of Graeme Fowler I compiled the survey results and the free index they gave away - a task I was given due to my already scary knowledge of the history of the mag - I could quote issue numbers for almost any feature off the top of my head! I think that concerned Gary slightly!"

Gary wrote several pieces for DWM under the name 'Graeme Fowler'. He used the pseudonym because "my boss at Hamerville often picked up and enjoyed my copy of DWM. They were a very possessive and uptight company, and wary of losing me to a more 'glamorous' group. I didn't want to give then cause for suspicion! They were exactly right to worry, as it turns out - but there's still no glamour!

"After I'd been in London for about seven or eight months, Gary [Russell] succeeded in his long-held ambition of persuading Marvel to expand their magazine output. Gary was made a group editor and Marcus Hearn was promoted to the editorship of the company's new launch, Hammer Horror.

"So, the top chair at DWM became empty and Gary needed someone to fill it - someone with a good knowledge of the ins-and-outs of Doctor Who, of DWM itself, and of the aforementioned practicalities of magazine production; which, with almost a year at Hamerville under my belt, I now had.

"He took something of a risk with me, and I was concerned about the then-sometimes confrontational nature of our friendship - so I was a little reticent at first. But as the remit of the job expanded to include the editorship of a planned general cult TV magazine as well, I soon realised that I would be a fool to say no."

Gary Gillatt was still relatively new to Doctor Who Magazine when some of his colleagues, including former editors Gary Russell and Marcus Hearn, were made redundant. "Those of us who were left felt absolutely bereft and, more significantly, incredibly guilty. What had happened was that those who had been there for years - Gary and Marcus - were laid off, and those who had been there for a matter of months - Scott [Gray] and I - were kept on. We felt terrible - but there was no point in walking out in a show of solidarity; if we stayed on at least we could pass Gary and Marcus as much freelance work as possible (hence the Dalek Movie Special).

It was a terrible time, and it took more than a year for those of us left to forgive our new management and understand the nature of their decisions - which were not personal. Positions are made redundant, not individuals. Loss making-magazines were shed in a last-ditch attempt to stabilise a company Marvel US were just minutes away from closing down completely. Scott and I were lucky to be the ones working on the successful title. If I'd have been in Gary's middle-management position, or the editor of Hammer Horror, then I'd have been out of the door myself and they'd have stayed. It was a bloody awful time, but no judgment on the abilities of anyone who left - they were just bloody unfortunate."

Marvel is apparently currently in receivership. How is this likely to affect DWM's future?

"Not at all, which is one of the other good things about our merger with Panini.

"Panini SPA, the parent company of Panini UK is one of the most successful magazine publishers in Europe - they absolutely dominate Southern Europe. Panini SPA is the only money-making wing of the Marvel Entertainment Group [MEG]. If we hadn't have been with Panini, the magazine would have probably closed down in June.

"MEG has tactically filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to allow some boardroom shenanigans and buy them time with shareholders and debtors. Panini SPA will be floated separately to pay off MEG's debts and will undoubtedly be bought as an investment by a financial house and we'll carry on as is. If you buy an already successful creative company, you don't mess with the formula."

In TSV 51, Gary Russell voiced rather negative views on the management team at Panini, the company who now own Doctor Who Magazine. What is Gary Gillatt's response to his predecessor's comments?

"That's a hard question, because Gary is a friend, but I do think he chose to set the debate in motion last issue, and I'm sure he'll agree that I have a right to reply.

"In my experience the new Panini senior management team is far more focused, talented, encouraging and able than any I experienced when we were plain Marvel UK. The managing director particularly is a driven man who knows the industry inside-out and frankly, has balls-of-steel. I feel far more secure now than under the previous regime. Of course, I could be out of the door myself at a moments notice, but the security of my job is founded purely on the quality of my work - there aren't going to be any random foul-ups elsewhere due to feckless management that will pull the company under - which is good to know.

"Frankly, BBC policy permitting, DWM is far more secure now than it was under the old Marvel regime. And I'm pretty sure that Gary can't honestly look back at his last two MDs at Marvel and say that they were really committed to the company and its growth. He paints a picture of a golden age that simply did not exist. He'd lived through at least two similar sets of mass-redundancies himself at time of financial chaos.

"In these comments, of course, I refer to the management above Gary Russell at the time - Gary was the only one far-sighted enough to recognise a growing market in sci-fi magazines, and clever enough to bid for the Star Wars licence back in 1994; he had only the most grudging support from Marvel at the time - who were still pining for their lost UK comics empire - and Panini have since looked to expand in different directions.

"We were only merged with Panini UK at that time as a last ditch attempt to save the company. Marvel UK's losses were spiralling out of all control - the company was haemorrhaging money on vanity projects and often well-made but certainly market-researched, unpopular titles. No magazine was individually cost-centred, for example, so DWM's budget was kept tight to cover the losses of other tides. Now the company has shed all its loss making titles and finally moved into profit, DWM sees a good deal more investment - more pictures, more words, more commissioned photography - all based on its own success."

Gary Russell was also critical of the changes Gary Gillatt has made to Doctor Who Magazine. Gary Gillatt says "Gary and I will always disagree about what is right for the mag, but I'll be happy to be judged by the current circulation figures and the overwhelmingly positive mail we receive. I don't think his 'part-work' hard fact approach had a future. I think the magazine is now a living, trend-setting thing in itself, much more of an 'event' purchase. I simply want to make it more challenging, entertaining and thought-provoking than before.

Gary defines an 'event purchase' as "something that is anticipated, and each issue should be unique, special and surprising. There was a time that the magazine was just bought out of habit, or loyalty. I want people to buy it because they love it."

Staying with the subject of changes to DWM, does Gary see the magazine as becoming more fanzine-like in its style and coverage, as some readers have claimed?

"I'm afraid I don't understand the question," Gary confesses. "Although we recognise that we're dealing with a very specific subject matter, the magazine follows the rules of any other mainstream title; perhaps more so than at any other time in its history. This means there are articles of a varying pace and tone in the magazine, which make for a more entertaining and eclectic read. Is that a style more associated with fanzines? In which case, the fanzines were getting it right and it would explain why DWM never quite seemed to be seen as 'indispensable' - it was just too predictable. We never want to be predictable. That's probably our central maxim for what we do. I suspect, however, that most people will call us 'fanzine-like' simply because we now have jokes and a more chummy editorial tone."

What factors govern the selection of an issue's content? "It's an entirely instinctive process: dreaming up article ideas that excite us; finding others to supplement or extend that theme; striking a balance between serious stuff and funny stuff; the balance between sixties, seventies and eighties stuff; the balance between features with new photos and features with familiar ones; the balance between editorially expensive or time-consuming features and simpler, easier ones; the need to find lead and second features you can provide an interesting, witty and engaging opening image for. After all this time, I just go with what feels right for me. Hopefully enough of it is right for the readers too."

A major highlight of every DWM issue for many readers is Andrew Pixley's Archive series, each instalment of which documents the making of a single television story. Currently, DWM is just over the halfway point in its long-term plan to cover every story. What determines the selection of an issue's Archive?

"We set an annual schedule about a year ahead of publication to allow Andrew to start his ground work and undertake any special research; sourcing scripts, visiting the BBC written archive, etc. He'll make some initial choices based on spreading the material over the 26 seasons, making sure we don't end up with a final long run of Tom Baker or William Hartnell stories, basically. I'll suggest amendments based on available photographic material in our files, or just bite the bullet on certain stories hoping something will turn up. Planet of Giants was a good example of this; three months ago we only had four pictures from this story on file - but with help from kind friends and colleagues we managed to find enough to make it a viable Archive.

"At later stages I might have cause to reprioritise and change the order. I couldn't run The Ambassadors of Death in Pertwee's obituary issue, for example, so Andrew quickly finished off The Daemons for me - which was work in progress at the time. Similarly, the Dragonfire Archive was brought forward to add that bit extra to Sophie's issue [DWM 255]."

As Andrew Pixley's Archive steadily grows into a unparalleled record of the making of the programme, naturally there are many readers who would like to see the articles reprinted in volumes at some stage. Gary says that this has "always been a consideration, but long thought would have to given to the format of such a book. Each Archive works to the same structure, which is very helpful as a monthly feature as the story of each serial's production can be told in a clear and concise way. I suspect that reading, say, twenty Archives back-to-back would be somewhat fatiguing, however. Ask me again when the run finishes in 2003!"

Between 1991 and 1995, DWM published a regular annual hardback Yearbook. These were discontinued, because, as Gary explained "The Yearbooks made a loss. I'd prefer to devote my energy to keeping the standard of the regular title high and consistent, so I personally won't be lobbying for their return."

Another DWM supplement which disappeared from the schedules in 1996 was the previously twice-yearly DWM Special. The last DWM Special was produced to promote the TV Movie in May last year. "The specials are very hard work on top of the regular schedule, and sell significantly less than regular issues," Gary explained and adds that the return of the specials is "Very unlikely, unless there is a specific event to celebrate such as the return of the series."

A recent innovation to DWM has been the introduction of a regular column entitled The Life and Times of Jackie Jenkins, featuring the 'diary excerpts' of a young female Doctor Who fan. Gary explains that the inspiration behind this column came "from a desire to cover a variety of themes and experiences that are common to all fans, but do not lend themselves to an in-depth study in a 4000 word article.

"More significantly, I've always believed that the appreciation of Doctor Who is best as a shared, communal experience; and tried to push that idea as a lifestyle, if you will. That's why I've run features on why conventions are great, why fanzines are easy to edit, or why Local Groups are a good thing. The more that people meet up and enthuse each other about the show, the more they'll stop moping at home about the lack of a new series and, perhaps, the longer they'll stay active, (magazine-buying) fans.

"Jackie is all about how much fun being a Doctor Who fan can be, and how valid a part of your life it is allowed to be. It was originally aimed at the younger end of our readership, who haven't met up with many fellow fans yet; but it seems to have been a huge hit with many outside this group.

"Some feel it trivialises the show and that talking about Doctor Who should be a serious business. But then, a large section of the readership can't stand the Telesnaps. There's got to be something in there for everyone. She's also become something of a sex symbol, with lots of letters coming in proposing friendship and more!"

The column has provoked discussion among DWM readers as to who really writes Jackie Jenkins. "'Who she really is'? I can't think what you mean!" Gary replied. "I am aware of such speculation - and I think it's great."

A major coup during Gary's editorship has been the John Nathan-Turner Memoirs, a series of articles in which the controversial former producer wrote about his memories of working on Doctor Who in great depth. JNT had previously declined to share his experiences in print, notably in the Handbook series and Doctor Who - The Eighties, and Gary reveals that what convinced JNT to write for DWM was "My charm and my cheque book."

In his memoirs, JNT cites a number of instances concerning wars of words with colleagues and fans. Was Gary ever concerned that some of what JNT was writing might be considered libellous?

"There were a number of things I considered carefully, and certainly Gary Leigh/Levy of Dreamwatch and DWB was very abusive on the phone, threatening all kinds of legal action if we printed anything derogatory to him or Dreamwatch during JNT's chapters on the late eighties. I only wondered why he felt so insecure. What was he expecting JNT to reveal?

"JNT is a very clever man, however, and knows how to say things so people can read between the lines. I just applied common sense and a reasonably good working knowledge of libel law and knew we had nothing to worry about."

The popular Sophie Aldred, who played Ace, was recently appointed 'guest editor' for one issue of DWM (issue 255). Gary believes that it is "unlikely" that there will be further instances of a Doctor Who personality stepping in as editor. "That was just a bit of a publicity wheeze, like our cross-dressed cover last Christmas. It can work with Sophie because Sophie is a fan herself. Many of the other Doctor Who 'celebs' I've met are too surly and pompous to relax enough to enjoy the joke of it, I fear."

Gary was undoubtedly the envy of all fans when in early 1996 he went to Vancouver to cover the production of the TV Movie for DWM. In what ways did the impressions he formed on this trip differ from the finished production?

"It certainly made me pre-disposed to liking it. But the weaknesses that I criticised in the final production were the same weaknesses I saw on set and the same weaknesses I winced at when I first read the script before setting off.

"The film looks beautiful, is better directed than even many cinema features on the circuit recently and all the performances are perfectly pitched. I knew all this when I was in Canada.

"None of it, however, compensates for the sheer stupidity of the ways they choose to introduce the series' concepts to the audience. Even the late, ham-fisted addition of McGann's opening voice-over only made things worse. The basic, fundamental rule of any film or TV scripting or production is 'Don't tell them, show them.'

"Fans of anything always say 'I can do better than that myself.' In this case, half of the people I go out drinking with almost certainly could. They know what makes Doctor Who work and what the audience doesn't need to get in the way.

"Continuity, laziness, in-jokes and showing off killed Doctor Who in 1989, and it was a desperate shame to see the same infections do for it again in '96."

DWM has promised an interview with TV Movie set designer Richard Hudolin that has yet to see print and Gary reveals that there is even more material of this type resulting from the trip waiting in the wings. "There are interviews with the designers - costume, set, visual effects and production - and a whole range of 'inside gossip' that is still a bit, um, controversial, to see print yet.

"In the latter half of last year, our mailbag indicated that everyone was a bit tired of the TV Movie material, and our retrospective The Mourning After was designed to act as a closure to discussion of the film as a 'now' thing. The interviews will see print, but they stand as 'on file' material and will be employed as appropriate. The film represents only ninety minutes of Doctor Who's screen time, so the balance of our editorial content will reflect that."

The controversial comic strip Ground Zero which ended the Seventh Doctor's tenure in the strip was brilliantly timed to coincide with the movie, yet it must have been scheduled before Gary and the others at DWM knew that this would be the case, so what direction was the strip intended to take after this point if the movie hadn't come along?

"The strip that became Ground Zero had been planned for some time, well before plans for the TV Movie became concrete. After I took over editorship of the strip (a few months after taking on the mag itself) I resolved to return to the Seventh Doctor to re-establish an ongoing narrative. I never thought that jumping around different Doctors in the strip really worked, as it deprived the reader the thrill of the sense of an ongoing linked storyline. I also knew that I wanted to move the strip back to its own continuity and needed a pretty 'in your face' way of demonstrating this. I wanted the Seventh Doctor to return with a bang, and to a ready-made running threat.

"So, we created the Threshold, a mysterious, amoral business organisation who would form the backbone of that threat. Threshold agents made fleeting appearances in the Fifth, First and Fourth Doctor stories that were my first commissions. They were easy to miss, but immensely rewarding to discover later as their plot becomes clear.

"The original plan was for the Seventh Doctor to continue, find a new comic strip companion (who wouldn't have been Izzy, who was designed to complement the Eighth Doctor), and set out after the Threshold. Ace was always going to die saving the Doctor, but we deliberately didn't show what the Doctor did with her body.

"As Ground Zero was coming together, the TV Movie became a real possibility, and we saw that the story could work very well as a swansong for McCoy, and then we could consciously 'lighten-up' a bit with McGann. The only concessions we made were to change McCoy's costume and drop in a reference to Puccini!

"The Threshold then worked as a great bridge between the Doctors and we now have a solely comic strip foe that, for the first time in years, are strong enough in their own right to employ in a cliff-hanger."

The shocking death of Ace in Ground Zero dramatically marked the parting of the ways between the previously shared continuity of the DWM comic strip and Virgin Publishing's New Adventures. Gary says "I'll never choose to deliberately contradict the continuity (such as there is) of the TV show, I just simply avoid it, but I have no feeling about what any other publisher is doing. Generally, in the strip, I'll always plump for the Marvel version of things, rather than the TV version. So when we return to Gallifrey in a few months, it will be the Gallifrey of The Tides of Time [a Fifth Doctor comic strip first published in Doctor Who Monthy in 1982] rather than that of Arc of Infinity.

"Similarly I feel that our strip Fire and Brimstone will be a better remembered Dalek story than the novel War of the Daleks will prove. We just got on and told a solid, scary and exciting tale; with no faffing around with Davros or attempts to reconcile to continuity of Planet of the Daleks with that of Remembrance. In his book, John Peel does nothing else but. That has nothing to do with Doctor Who, other than that similar mentality which I've already suggested led to its downfall in the eighties. And the nineties."

During Gary Russell's tenure as editor, DWM's comic strip featured strong links with Virgin's New Adventures, and this relationship extended into other areas of the magazine as well, notably the Preludes, which were short story teasers for the novels. Once Gary Gillatt took over, DWM seemed to rapidly shed those ties. What were the reasons for this?

"I've answered this question to a fair degree in assorted letters pages and editorials. It's fairly well known that I consider the books to be rather charmless and at something of a tangent to the core spirit of the show.

"The ties weren't that strong anyway; really just the Preludes and the overlapping continuity in the strip. For the former, I didn't like the way that pages of the magazine were occupied by half-baked leftovers from often second-rate novels that a fair proportion of our readers weren't going to buy anyway. Even Virgin hated them!

"As for the continuity thing, the strip suffered for a range of reasons I've banged-on about before, not the least of which was that it became reactive to other peoples' decisions which didn't have the specific needs of the strip in mind. It was completely deprived of any possibility of an initiative or style of its own. Would Virgin have allowed us to introduce a companion that then appeared as a given in their next book? I think not!

"Would they have allowed us to introduce a companion appropriate to a comic strip? Yeah, sure. We dropped away just before we needed to move a Doctor, a wise-cracking archaeologist, and two (hah!) two hard-bitten policemen around a seven-page adventure strip, and tell a story at the same time."

If Gary considers the New Adventures to be at odds with the 'core spirit of the show' then how does he view the new BBC Books range?

"I've only read Vampire Science I'm afraid, which I largely enjoyed despite the fact that incident and action seemed to be replaced by endless moral debate. The Eighth Doctor was spot on, however.

"Sadly, I find it rather difficult to keep up with the vast output of Beeb Books, and after a day thinking about Doctor Who from nine to six I tend to look for different stuff in a novel during the evening."

Will the continuity of the comic strip be tied in with the BBC novels at some point, as was done with the Virgin novels?

"In no way whatsoever. Although I believe they might be doing it to some degree the other way round, which is an interesting choice.

"Books and comic strips, and indeed a television series for that matter, have completely different needs and its best that everyone does their own thing. Moreover, why settle for just one continuity when you can have the fun of three!"

It is difficult to know, says Gary, how long DWM can keep going if Doctor Who doesn't return to production. "The fan base is so stable, and now so much more relaxed than in those years before the TV Movie. These days there's a sense that, with the energy of the magazine and with all that other merchandise out there, Doctor Who is very much an alive 'now' thing. All those episodes are still happening for us today, and there is much still to discover and say about them. There is never a shortage of interesting new material. Doctor Who fans are so much more sophisticated, intelligent, imaginative and witty compared to fans of those ponderous, stuffy US sci-fi epics. Doctor Who fans have a sense of humour and are able to look at their show from a variety of angles - not just the one proscribed by the production office. Doctor Who will live longer than any of them."

Gary feels confident that the show will have another revival within the next five or six years, and as he points out, DWM have already survived one hiatus of this duration. He also believes that the magazine could outlast its present ownership by Panini. "It will last with Panini for as long as it's selling the right number of copies; but I'm sure if it wasn't cutting the mustard for Panini then someone else with different economic imperatives would snap up the rights. You may see yet Gary Levy editing DWM!"

How much longer then does Gary Gillatt see himself continuing to edit DWM? "I have absolutely no idea. I did once, just not at the moment."

Gary has begun work on a large format non-fiction book he's writing for BBC Books which will be published in 1998 to mark the programme's 35th anniversary. "It's called Doctor Who: From A to Z, and will contain 26 different commentaries on the series, each covering its whole 35 years but from a different standpoint. It's basically a "well-informed Peter Haining for the nineties" - but don't let that put you off, after all Doctor Who - A Celebration was the defining book of its decade. It will be full of thought-provoking stuff for fans, but also a lot of trivia, and some fantastic new photographs from every era of the show. It will be celebratory in tone, but will assess the ups and downs of the show with a pretty impartial eye. It will be very different from any non-fiction book published for years."

Unlike his predecessor however, Gary Gillatt has no plans to branch out into writing Doctor Who novels. "I haven't the skill to really capture a fast, frivolous TV series in a 250 page book with no pictures or cliff-hangers. I'll leave all that to the handful who've cracked it and sit back and enjoy helping to plot the downfall of the Ninth Doctor and Izzy at the hands of the Threshold..."

What's this? The Ninth Doctor? Is this an error, or the first indication that Gary's planning to regenerate the Doctor in the DWM comic strip? "One of those things, yes," Gary replies evasively. "Sorry, is that the time? I've got to rush off and feed Neska the cat now.

"Bye, and thanks!"

This item appeared in TSV 52 (November 1997).