Home : Archive : TSV 31-40 : TSV 38 : Feature

Gareth Roberts Interview

By Warwick Gray

Gareth reads TSV 36 - no doubt checking out the 'Time Lord Game Additions' entry for his creations, the Chelonians.

Gareth Roberts should be a familiar name to followers of the Virgin New Adventures line. His first novel The Highest Science won deserved acclaim amongst fandom, both for its adherence to traditional Doctor Who elements (monsters, quarries and corridors), and its emphasis on characterisation and humour.

To meet Gareth John Pritchard Roberts (born 5/6/68) is to encounter a subtle (and hilarious) barrage of impressions, anecdotes and innuendo. Witty and articulate, Gareth is quite possibly the only being on the planet who can discuss Doctor Who for an entire evening and not be boring for an instant. We should all be thankful that he's on our side.

Gareth's second novel, Tragedy Day, will be released in the UK in March 1994 with an NZ release in June. He was reluctant to discuss plot details, but having seen excerpts and descriptions of the story. I can assure you all: it's gonna be a humdinger. Miss it at your own peril.

A number of factors prohibited a 'live' interview, but Gareth consented to answer a list of (mainly coherent) questions I sent to his home in idyllic Winchester, Hampshire, England.

Off we go...

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I've always been interested in words and sentences. As a child, I filled exercise books with stories. These relied heavily on robots and ghosts and gratuitous violence. I liked to invent new words and still do. So writing is something I've always enjoyed, but it doesn't fully satisfy me. People like Paul Cornell and Andrew Cartmel were destined to be writers; they ooze it. I don't think I do.

What was the genesis of The Highest Science?

The title of The Highest Science and the vague outline of the Sheldukher story had been floating about at the back of my mind for years. I found myself out of work in the summer of 1990 (I was between terms at university) and having seen the guidelines for the New Adventures, thought I'd give it a go. My first submission was fairly dire. Virgin wrote back and said, 'Nice idea, do this, do that'. I complied and then waited for a year. I was commissioned in October 1991 and I wrote the book comparatively quickly, in order to clear the decks for my finals. The major change was that Ace became Bernice.

Did the story change significantly as it developed?

As I write, I am constantly thinking, 'How can I improve this? How can I make this sequence more diverting?' My aim is for there to be at least two things that are witty or exciting or intriguing on every page. I try to keep things moving as fast as possible. With The Highest Science, the book improved on the original outline in a number of ways. When you're writing, things that looked startlingly witty or exciting in the outline can become very dull. I suppose one thing that changed was that neither the Ethers nor the Constructs were in the original outline, and I think the Cell survived. It's all a long time ago.

The Highest Science doesn't seem to have any continuity references to past TV stories - was that deliberate?

It does have a few throwaway references. Really, it's a case of not being terribly interested in carrying on other people's work. I would much rather create my own characters and concepts. One thing I do find fun is to play with the strange science of Doctor Who. I don't possess a grain of scientific knowledge, so the idea of being able to record personality traits on pieces of wire and the like appeals to me. My vision of Doctor Who is a progressive one. I feel bored by old cobblers coming round again and again. It's rather like sleeping with an ex-lover. You can't turn the clock back.

What's your earliest memory of Doctor Who?

Part one of The Three Doctors, where the gel seeps from the manhole in the UNIT garage. I was hooked instantly. That gel has a lot to answer for.

Who would you cite as influences?

My favourite Doctor Who authors are Robert Holmes, David Fisher and Chris Boucher. Unfettered, they understood the series and what made it so popular better than anybody else. The strength of their writing comes from a concentration on characters. It's a lesson I am learning slowly. Holmes' best works (The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Ribos Operation, and The Caves of Androzani) almost wrote themselves because the characters and their motivations are so well drawn.

Outside the canon, my favourite writers include Barbara Comyns, Truman Capote, and a quite brilliant Scottish novelist called Shena McKay. Her work includes the novel Dunedin, which contrasts the lives of Scottish settlers in NZ at the turn of the century with their descendants living in present-day London. Seek, locate and absorb.

You've been dealing mainly with the McCoy Doctor - how does he compare with the other six?

I quite like the idea of the Seventh Doctor. I remember being hugely excited by Remembrance of the Daleks, but the idea of the cosmic manipulator is a hell of a pig of a notion to sustain effectively, and was showing signs of strain in 1989. In addition, Sylvester's performances were rather variable. I liked the novelty of the approach, but I wish there hadn't been so many returning enemies. And some of the stories weren't very well made. I don't mind tacky sets - I do mind blaring music and incomprehensible editing. My other favourites are Survival, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and The Happiness Patrol. Heretically, I prefer Season 24 to 26, which I find rather inward-looking and impenetrable. As far as the character of the Doctor goes, I've tried to concentrate on what I liked.

What is your favourite period of the TV show?

The Tom Baker era is my firm favourite. He captures the essential essence of the Doctor so well and is such a magnetic personality in that role. The stories really come alive for me between Seasons 14 and 18, mainly because they are intelligent, witty and well made. I like the idea of the Doctor as an itinerant wanderer encountering new challenges, which is the backbone of that era.

Has it influenced your approach to writing Doctor Who?

Well, I'm writing for the New Adventures, which have their own backbone. I want to fit in with what's going on around me. The major influence I've tried to take on is the combination of big, outrageous ideas with a dash of menace.

Since the series' cancellation, almost all of the resulting Doctor Who stories have been produced by fans - what are the pros and cons of this?

As I said earlier, I don't find returning characters very interesting, and they are what fans tend to find interesting. I'm not interested in big debates on the characters of the Doctor and his companions either, and there has perhaps been too much of that. We all tend to have a differing vision of the series, the characters and what it's all about which is a bit of a double-edged sword. It encourages variety but it can make the regular characters almost schizophrenic.

I worry that some of the bolder experiments with the format were not attempted within the fabric of the TV series for a number of very good reasons.

What is the dark secret of the Doctor Who Liberation Front?

The Doctor Who Liberation Front was formed at Panopticon. I was just sitting with a bunch of people who were thoroughly bemused by the proceedings. We realised that our appreciation of the series was based around principles contrary to those cemented about us. I never asked for costume exhibitions, fact files or the return of Omega. For me the series means completely different things. It is sad and strange that Arc of Infinity is being released on video but that nothing from Season 16 is out. It gives me a cold, odd feeling. The DWLF was set up to stop me getting too upset. Anybody can join; all you need is a pirated and well-loved copy of The Androids of Tara.

What's the single finest scene in the history of televised Doctor Who?

It has to be the final scene of City of Death.

What's the single worst scene?

The interrogation of Tegan by Omega and the Ergon in Part Three of Arc of Infinity.

If or when Doctor Who returns as a TV series how would you like to see it handled?

I'm not sure if it should. If it does, I'd like to see the fans alienated and the general public wildly acclamatory.

Peter Darvill-Evans hired you to criticize a huge number of New Adventures submissions for him - has this been fun?

It isn't so much criticism as vetting. Virgin receives coach-loads of unsolicited submissions and the staff there is far too busy to make time to give the task the attention it deserves. The Doctor Who range takes its lifeblood from this inlet and as a result, Virgin is almost definitely the most welcoming publisher in the western hemisphere.

The job has been interesting. I defy anyone to find it fun.

In general, what are the most common mistakes would-be Doctor Who writers make?

It goes back to the urge to write. If you are interested in expressing yourself through the written word you will almost definitely be a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Writers, from whatever background and whatever genre they work in are interested people. They are interested in almost everything and feel the urge to express that interest through written words. If you are one of these people, then problems with writing style and the like will evaporate with experience.

The most common problems are lack of originality, clumsy writing style and shaky characterization.

Tragedy Day is just around the corner now - what's it about?

Who are the Union of Three? What are the Slaags? And what lies behind the identity of the being known only as the Supreme One?

Was writing Tragedy Day a different experience to The Highest Science?

It was harder for two reasons. Firstly, it's a less straightforward story, so I had to be on my wits to prevent any inconsistencies in the plot. Secondly, I had a lot less time to write it in.

What's your impression of the 'new' Ace?

I don't like her, but she was handed to me as a fait accompli. I don't think the Doctor would let anybody with a gun aboard the TARDIS.

Do you have further New (or old) Adventures you'd like to tell?

Barring any major disasters, I hope to be telling a Missing Adventure featuring the Fourth Doctor, Romana and K9 before too long. I was unsure about the idea of this new old range at first, but when it came to writing an outline for a third book I succumbed. It will make a better book and I will have more fun, and as a result so will the readers.

Finally, every writer has a dream project they want to do - what's yours?

As JNT said on Blue Peter in 1980, 'There's a great temptation to say 'who knows?'

Clockwise from top left: Gareth Roberts, Paul Vyse, Neil Corry, Steve Lyons, Anthony Brown.

This item appeared in TSV 38 (March 1994).