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Four Writers, One Discussion

Andy Lane, Paul Cornell, Steven Moffat & David Bishop

By David Bishop

This is not an interview, no conventional questions and answers, no 'what are you working on now', no one-to-one interaction. Indeed, this is not even a sequel to A Conversation with Paul Cornell, a piece published in TSV 28 nearly three years ago. Instead this is an alcohol-fuelled, wildly rambling discussion / debate / argument held at the Conservatory, 17 January 1995. The participants are Andy Lane, Paul Cornell, Steven Moffat and David Bishop.

Andy Lane co-wrote the New Adventure Lucifer Rising with Jim Mortimore before becoming a solo writer. His New Adventure All-Consuming Fire forged an unlikely alliance between Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. Lane is creator of the newest companions of the Seventh Doctor, Cwej and Forrester, who will make their debut in Original Sin in June. Lane is currently writing a Missing Adventure, The Empire of Glass. His favourite New Adventure is Justin Richards' Theatre of War, from his own works he singles out All-Consuming Fire ("because it was such fun to write"), and thinks Lucifer Rising is too wordy and padded. Outside Doctor Who Lane is writing a horror novel, Full Fathom Five.

Paul Cornell is the author of three published New Adventures - Timewyrm: Revelation, Love and War and No Future. He was picked by Virgin to write the first Missing Adventure, Goth Opera and his fourth and final New Adventure Human Nature is due out in May. Cornell singles out Set Piece as his favourite New Adventure, highlights Revelation from his own works for reasons of nostalgia but considers Goth Opera to be obvious pastiche. His innumerable projects include a fantasy novel for Random House, several TV projects for Richmond Films (makers of Press Gang), a new comic strip series for the Judge Dredd Megazine and, hopefully, a Doctor Who CD-Rom.

Steven Moffat is the multi-award winning writer of the Channel 4 series Press Gang. His other credits include Overkill from Murder Most Horrid II starring Dawn French and the BBC2 sitcom Joking Apart. Moffat is a genuine fan of Doctor Who, but a strident critic of it as a television professional, as the following conversation will prove!

The discussion began after at least one round of drinks...

David: Last time I talked to Paul for TSV, Revelation was published, he was writing Love and War and saying Virgin would never buy his third and final proposal which was going to be called Anarchy in the UK (later No Future). It was going to be far too radical and far reaching for Virgin; they'd never have the balls to publish it.

Paul: Now I have finished so I have no more radical proposals that they may not accept.

David: The obvious question is you two have written what will be from June the TARDIS crew, with the exception of the Seventh Doctor...

Andy: You could say that in a lot of senses, Paul has re-created the Seventh Doctor - in terms of what's led up to the particular Doctor that we're writing for...

Paul: You might say that nobody takes any bloody notice! I think everybody does, everybody recreates the Seventh Doctor. Gareth (Roberts) does, certainly everybody's Seventh Doctor is different.

Andy: But you've created a huge back-history of the Sixth Doctor being written off as a lost leader against the Valeyard, which the rest of us have got to go along with or deliberately disagree with. It's there, we can't avoid it.

Paul: But I think that's good. One of the things New Adventures writers do - because we have no over-riding producer-like authority to shout us down - is that we all put obstacles that others have to wind their way around. It entirely depends on popularity - fan popularity or author popularity - which one of these is taken up. I mean, Neil Penswick, despite destroying seven planets, has had no visible influence on the rest of the New Adventures authors... I think we're starting to go towards the same point. Kate (Orman) has started wrapping together different genres by paying notice to Transit, etc.

Andy: I'm not sure I agree with the Neil Penswick thing. Neil had a huge effect on the New Adventures writers that came after, because we were all thinking for god's sake, we do not want to write a book like The Pit! (Laughter) Sorry if you're listening, Neil!

Paul: (to Steven): How many of the New Adventures have you read?

Steven: I've read quite a few but not so many anymore. There's 24 of them a year, that's too bloody many! I've never wanted 24 new Doctor Who adventures a year in my life. Six was a perfectly good number.

David: But Doctor Who was on 46 weeks of the year in the Hartnell era...

Steven: Yes, but did you see the pace of those shows? They were incredibly, incredibly slow! Really hideous. I dearly loved Doctor Who but I don't think my love of it translated into it being a tremendously good series. It was a bit crap at times, wasn't it?

Paul: Steven has pointed out in the past there's a certain nobility about Doctor Who as 'classic children's serial' and kitsch, deep camp.

Steven: If you judge on what they were trying to do - that is create a low budget, light-hearted children's adventure serial for teatime - it's bloody amazingly good. If you judge it as a high class drama series, it's falling a bit short. But that's not what it was trying to be.

Paul: Fanboys put Doctor Who up against I, Claudius. There's a certain macho quality to a lot of fan recognition of the show which says 'Yes! It's up there with Shakespeare'...

Andy: Come on, if you put it up against I, Claudius, there are amazing similarities. I, Claudius took place entirely on studio sets, everyone wore stupid costumes, talked in mock Shakespearean speech...

Steven: And it had a brilliant script and a cast of brilliant actors. These are two things we cannot say in all forgiveness about Doctor Who. There have been times when some people have thrown doubt on the quality of the dialogue. Much as I dearly love it...

David: You're willing to recognise its limitations?

Steven: Yeah. I still think all the Peter Davison stuff stands up.

David: I'm sorry but I hated the Davison era.

Steven: How could you? I'm talking retrospectively now, when I look back at Doctor Who now. I laugh at it, fondly. As a television professional, I think how did these guys get a paycheck every week? Dear god, it's bad! Nothing I've seen of the black and white stuff - with the exception of the pilot, the first episode - should have got out of the building. They should have been clubbing those guys to death! You've got an old guy in the lead who can't remember his lines; you've got Patrick Troughton, who was a good actor, but his companions - how did they get their Equity card? Explain that! They're unimaginably bad. Once you get to the colour stuff some of it's watchable, but it's laughable. Mostly now, looking back, I'm startled by it. Given that it's a children's show, and a teatime show, I think the Peter Davison stuff is well constructed, the characters are consistent...

Andy: They are consistently crap.

David: One dimensional and cardboard.

Steven: That's true, but if you can point at one example of melodrama where that's not true, I'd be grateful. Peter Davison is a better actor than all the other ones, that's the simple reason why he works more than all the other ones. There is no sophisticated, complicated reason to explain why Peter Davison carried on working and all the other Doctors disappeared into a retirement home for lardies. He's better and I think he's extremely good as the Doctor. I recently watched a very good Doctor Who story, one I couldn't really fault. It was Snakedance. Sure it was cheap but it was beautifully acted, well written. There was a scene in it where Peter Davison has to explain what's going on, the Doctor always has to. Now some drunk old lardie like Tom Baker would come on to a sudden, shuddering halt in the middle of the set (and) stare at the camera because he can't bear the idea that someone else is in the show. But Peter Davison is such a good actor he managed to panic on screen for a good two minutes so he had you sitting on the edge of your seat, thinking god, this must be really, really bad. He shrills and shrieks and fails around marvellously. And he's got the most boring bunch of lines to say and I'm thinking 'Oh no, this guy's wetting himself! We're in real trouble!'

Paul: Fond laughter and doing something for ourselves are the two factors that matter in the New Adventures. We don't want people to laugh at us; we want them to realise there is a camp element and in bringing up these traditions we expect a certain amount of guffaws at them. I think that's almost a motivating factor in certain aspects of All-Consuming Fire, for instance. (Laughter).

Andy: All-Consuming Fire is a serious examination of the underside of Victorian society, I'll have you know.

Steven: With Sherlock Holmes in it!

Paul: The defining factor for our critics seems to be 'how like bad television is it?' It really pisses me off. There was a review in TV Zone recently of Kate Orman's new book which was entirely based on that premise, how like bad television is this book?

David: And it failed.

Paul: Well of course it failed.

David: Set Piece is not bad television.

Steven: But that's not what you want. My memories of Doctor Who are based on bad television that I enjoyed at the time. It could get me really burned saying this, but Doctor Who is actually aimed at 11-year-olds. Don't overstress it, but it's true. Now what the New Adventures have done, sometimes successfully, is to try and reinterpret that for adults, which has involved a completely radical revision of the Seventh Doctor that never appeared on television. That is brilliant.

Paul: There are big sections of fandom that I appreciate and love... Female fandom in all its forms has been consistently more intelligent than male fandom across the globe. Gay fandom in all its forms has, again, been consistently more intelligent than straight fandom. There's a liberal, American, college-based fandom too. When you come down to it, our central audience doesn't read. And that's a major problem for us... how do we address a new series of books to an audience who don't know what good books should be like?

David: The New Adventures audience wants books like bad television. But surely the Missing Adventures are designed to cater to that kitsch nostalgia-driven audience? And you wrote one of them, Paul!

Paul: Yes, I wrote one, and it was a most unpleasant experience. The Missing Adventures are there for that base kind of taste. Surely that should free us up a bit more now?

David: Theoretically.

Andy: I think we're coming at this from the wrong angle. People buy the Missing or New Adventures for their own reasons. We can't change that reason. The reason is people want to recapture the feeling of watching Doctor Who. We've got to cater to that... If we want to do something more serious, we should write serious books. Not Doctor Who.

Paul: Well, yes, that's true.

Andy: Tolstoy wouldn't be writing New Adventures, he'd be writing his own stuff. So should we.

David: Is the reason why people who would rather be writing serious fiction but who write New Adventures because Virgin buys books from new authors who don't have agents or any previous published work?

Andy: And they pay more than a lot of other publishers!

David: It strikes me that for all their faults and flaws, the New and Missing Adventures give new authors the chance to get several books published, make money doing it, get their hand in so they can then use that experience to write and sell the stories they really want to tell.

Paul: Of course, and that's wonderful... it gave both of us our start.

Andy: And we have to be fair to Virgin and say they aren't ripping off a lot of people by taking stuff from authors not represented by agents. If I went out and wrote a science fiction or horror novel now, and sold it, even through my agent, I'd be getting a much smaller print run than I do for the Doctor Who books. We're getting a very good deal.

Paul: Don't get me wrong, our problem isn't with our publishers, it's with our audience.

Andy: It's a different audience.

David: A lot of the sales are to people who will buy the book regardless of the contents, their literary merit.

Paul: I know what the problem with this audience thing is. Doctor Who on television never assumed it had a particular audience. I just think that the book audience ought to be as flexible and viable as the TV audience was. They could have an historical one month and a Christopher Bailey the next.

David: Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but during the Hartnell era they tried hard not to let the show be painted into a corner, to keep it as wide as possible. But the New Adventures very quickly became painted into a corner that they are now struggling to get out of...

Paul: Maybe you're right. (To Andy): I would like to know how your books have been influenced by catering to this particular audience.

Andy: I'd like to think I'm writing for me, people like me, rather than trying to guess what other people will think.

Paul: So your earlier point that we should cater to that audience is not true...

Andy: You're missing the possibility that I might be that audience. (Laughter).

Paul: Perhaps it's all about how we're reviewed...

David: Why do you worry about or even think about reviews, except for the ego aspect?

Andy: Because they help you improve yourself as a writer (hysterical laughter from Paul).

David: Yes, if they were reviewed on the basis of 'is this a good book or a bad book?', not 'is this a good representation of bad television'.

Andy: Nobody has got the omniscience to say 'this is a good book, this is a bad book'; there's no criteria for that.

Paul: But they could at least judge us by the criteria we set ourselves.

David & Andy: How are they going to know what your criteria are?

David: Get Virgin to insert your criteria for reviewing purposes into the book in the acknowledgements section.

Paul: But they hate me already; that would just push it over the edge.

Andy: Well then you can't argue with their review, you've got to let them review it on their own terms.

Paul: I have been badly reviewed well. Craig Hinton gave a bad review of No Future that was absolutely true and honest.

David: Surely it's not for you to decide how you're reviewed?

Paul: But it still annoys me. When I get a bad review that I don't lock into and accept and change because of, I walk around the house hugging myself, having lots of cups of coffee...

Steven: Oh come on! You just hate having bad reviews like the rest of us! (Laughter) Have you ever had a good review where you thought, 'I don't think he liked it for the right reasons, I don't think he was accurate', and you went around hugging yourself afterwards?

David: Have you ever gotten depressed over a good review that praised you for all the wrong reasons? Or do you just take the praise where you can get it?

Paul: Damn!

Steven: You create reasons for hating bad reviews... Don't go around saying 'he misunderstood me'. Just say 'I want that guy to die!' You'll feel a lot better.

Andy: I do change my writing based on bad reviews, if I agree with a fault in those reviews about my writing.

David: But that's just like accepting criticism from an editor.

Andy: If a plumber comes in and does a job and I think it doesn't look right, I'll say it's crap. I then don't expect my plumber to say "well it agrees with the way I wanted to do it." I just want it put right.

David: I think Doctor Who of the Sixties was simply of its time, other shows were just as slow.

Steven: If you look at other stuff from the Sixties they weren't crap - it was just Doctor Who. The first episode of Doctor Who betrays the lie that it's just the Sixties, because the first episode is really good - the rest of it's shit.

Andy: The reason why it's so good is they had months of lead-up time to it, after that it was weekly.

Steven: That's fair enough, but the rest is still bad.

Andy: But that's like comparing a serial with a one-off play from the same era.

Paul: What about the Honor Blackman Avengers? That was early Sixties, weekly, black and white and that had great visual style and great direction. In An Unearthly Child Waris Hussein does fades between scenes and other things that wouldn't reappear in Doctor Who for nearly ten years!

David: Surely that's down to the quality of the directors...

Steven: Don't you think it's fair to say Doctor Who was a great idea that happened to the wrong people? Most of the people working on it were on their way to do something else, they wanted to do something else?

David: Sounds like the New Adventures.

Steven: Well. Yes. It's not that I don't like it, but I wouldn't care to show it to my friends in television and say look, I think this is a great programme, because I think they might fling me out! ... I think Doctor Who is a corkingly brilliant idea. When they were faced with problems like the fact they were going to have to fire their lead they came up with some wonderful ideas; the recasting idea is brilliant. I think the actual structure, the actual format is as good as anything that's ever been done. His character, his TARDIS, all that stuff is so good it can even stand being done not terribly well - as one has to concede it was done.

Paul: Do you think the structure is different from the continuity?

Steven: The continuity would never have existed, it's been retroactively invented. I simply mean the basic principles of it some of the moments or ideas are so great they can dupe you into believing the programme was better than it really was. It was actually pretty shabby a lot of the time, which is a shame. There was some very good stuff over twenty five years, but there wasn't enough.

David: We were having a dinner party the night Resistance is Useless was first shown, and everyone enjoyed this Nineties documentary about Doctor Who. But as soon as the Sixties episode of The Time Meddler came on they all turned away from the screen within 30 seconds...

Andy: Surely that's a measure of people's attention span today.

Paul: I agree completely... I saw Remembrance of the Daleks recently. When it was first on, we thought it was fast paced. Now it looks slow and staid.

Steven: None of this is true. We've had an absolute perception of pacing for a very long time. Some of Shakespeare is pretty pacey.

Andy: Shakespeare has people standing around on stage spouting for ten minutes at a time!

Steven: Okay, I agree, Andy; Shakespeare is not as good as Doctor Who.

Paul: When it comes to Shakespeare, it changes with the times. Modern interpretations of Shakespeare are much faster.

Steven: Doctor Who was not limited merely by the limitations of the times or the styles that were prevalent then. It was limited by the relatively meagre talent of the people who were working on it.

Andy: And yet the people who worked on it turned over on a regular basis. Are you saying they were all mediocre?

Steven: Mostly they were middle-of-the-range hacks who were not going to go on to do much else. The hit rate for the 26 years is not high enough... There are people who have worked on Doctor Who who have gone on to great things, who are great talents, like Douglas Adams. I just think most of the people thought this was going to be the big moment of their lives which is a shame. As a television format: Doctor Who equals anything. Unless I chose my episodes very carefully, I couldn't sit anybody I work with in television down in front of Doctor Who and say 'watch this, this is a great show.'

Andy: I think that's true of any show. I couldn't sit anybody down in front of all of The Avengers and say this is a brilliant show, watch it.

David: What single episode would you show to someone? I'd show them Part One of Remembrance, if only for the Dalek going up the stairs at the end, to change their perception of the programme...

Paul: That's what I'd show them, if it was as a cultural artifact. If we're talking about Doctor Who as drama of any kind, it's got to be one of Christopher Bailey's; Part Three of Kinda...

Andy: I'd go for reliable old Robert Holmes, a man who knew what drama was. The Talons of Weng-Chiang Part One, perhaps.

Paul: A hack. A very good hack...

Steven: How could a good hack think that the BBC could make a giant rat? If he'd come to my house when I was 14 and said 'Can BBC Special Effects do a giant rat?' I'd have said no. I'd rather see them do something limited than something crap. What I resented was having to go to school two days later, and my friends knew I watched this show. They'd go 'Did you see the giant rat?!' and I'd have to say I thought there was dramatic integrity elsewhere.

Andy: You had some cruel friends! Imagine if it had been I, Claudius, they'd all come in and say 'wasn't that toga crap!'

Steven: There's a difference - I, Claudius is brilliant. Doctor Who isn't.

Paul: I notice that Andy has consistently maintained the popular front. When people write in to TSV and say 'my, weren't they talking a load of pretentious bollocks, but that Andy Lane...'

Andy: He's a decent bloke!

Steven: Once this tape recorder goes off, he'll change. He'll say 'You're right with that rat!'

Paul: I wanted, against the cynicism of all our previous discussions, in an attempt to sway the TSV audience back to me... (Laughter) to talk about the romance of the New Adventures for me... Having fan fiction for a long time, suddenly having people getting published at the same time as I am and who want to talk about it and who have similar problems, have similar relations with the publishers and the readers, it's really good. It's a stable! Before Panopticon in November '93, we had nine New Adventures writers in the Tavern at one go (London Doctor Who fans gather on the first Thursday of each month at the Fitzroy Tavern near Goodge Street). When Virgin gathered all the writers together that time, it was so nice meeting people doing the same sort of thing that you are, that have the same aspirations, it's really good.

Andy: If you look back to the Sixties, there was a similar situation for writers working on fiction magazines, they'd all get together and bitch.

Paul: Also, it's the aesthetics of pulp. Having to sell your writing - as Michael Moorcock did when he wrote Tarzan books - because you want to pay the rent. I think I'm selling myself low here. I have to say that everything I've ever written for the New Adventures and the Missing Adventures has been the best I could do at the time. I'm sure that's true for you as well.

Andy: Absolutely; but also, in four months, you can't produce War and Peace.

Paul: But I think it's fair that people writing New Adventures have to move on, we have to get people in at the other end. We have to get off one end of the conveyor belt so we can get people like Ian Atkins and Keith Topping in at the other end of it.

Andy: Probably this year both you and I will go way over the edge... (Laughter) We agree that people who have been writing New Adventures from the start, or certainly for the first few years, have to leave after, say, four novels, to let other people on to the conveyor belt. We're being a bit unfair by hogging them all.

Paul: New people should take over writing the Doctor Who novels. You know that David McIntee is going to be doing this for the rest of his life.

David: He's written the first purely historical New Adventure (Sanctuary)...

Paul: I've read it... I think it's the best work of literary fiction... (Laughter) No, I'm being perfectly honest with you.

David: By doing a pure historical he's trying to broaden the range of the New Adventures.

Paul: It's where Bernice falls in love with a mercenary knight. As she would.

David: Spoken like a creator pissed off that other people have got their hands on his creation.

Paul: No, not at all.

Andy: Paul, was Bernice created as a new companion or just picked up by Virgin?

Paul: No, she was written as a new companion. Remember Aaronovitch came up with Kadiatu at the same time? Assuming Benny is based on Emma Thompson, what media sources did you draw on for Cwej and Forrester?

Andy: Oh, this cruel assumption that I rely on media types and that I cast actors! Actually it was NYPD Blue, but we've changed the sex of the Sipowitz character,

Paul: You know that Gareth (Roberts) has written them as Dayna and Tarrant all the way through his book.

Andy: That's a valid interpretation.

Paul: Then used his spell checker to change all the names over at the end.

Steven: Ah! Now if you want Doctor Who to look good, you've only got to look at Blake's Seven.

Andy: Can someone just shoot him now?

After this the conversation slipped into endless defaming of lesser science fiction television actors who shall remain nameless.

Finally, I asked Paul and Andy to give some helpful suggestions for all prospective New Adventures authors, suggesting five commandments of things not to do in your submission:

  1. Don't use old enemies, especially the Valeyard.
  2. Don't use old characters, or multiple Doctors.
  3. Don't set it on Gallifrey, or a space station where strange deaths happen.
  4. Don't under-use a companion - bravely define them in your own style.
  5. Don't sign your name David Bishop or be a reviewer for TV Zone!

Thank you to Paul, Andy and Steven for their time and effort.

This item appeared in TSV 43 (March 1995).

Related Items: Paul Cornell Interview, David Bishop Interview