First published May 2005
If you've caught a glimpse of BBC television lately, you'll no doubt have been smacked with the hoopla surrounding the return of Doctor Who. After years on the sidelines, our favourite Gallifreyan is trendy again, or as the popular press might have it, the Doctor is in.
For Gary Russell however, the show had already regenerated into another form: audio. Everyone is said to have a favourite Doctor, and those fans of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy or even Paul McGann may be surprised to learn that these actors regularly reprise their roles in a series of audio adventures variously produced, written, even bit-parted by Gary and the chaps at Big Finish Productions.
Gary's a lifelong fan of the show, and of cult TV in general (just don't ask him about his own acting role in TV's The Famous Five). He's one of a number of Whovians who've turned their hobby into a successful career, probably in part due to the general wave of pop-nostalgia that sweeps our culture these days. In addition to his work for Big Finish, Gary's written a clutch of novels (yup, Doctor Who ones), has edited Doctor Who Magazine, and done some of those behind-the-scenes books for the Lord of the Rings movies. Whatever your stance on cult TV, you can't deny it's an impressive body of work.
We chatted with Gary about writing for radio, juggling his various hats, and reversing the polarity of the neutron flow.
Great Writing: You must have every Doctor Who fan's dream job. How did you end up producing official Doctor Who for Big Finish?
Gary Russell: I started life as a freelance journalist doing stuff for sci-fi mags (cos it's a subject I knew). That progressed to me writing a lot of the monthly Doctor Who Magazine back in the 80s, and then I wrote my first Dr Who novel in the 90s before juggling writing with actually going onto staff at Marvel UK to edit the Doctor Who Magazine. When I left that, I carried on doing the odd Who novel, plus other stuff such as guide books for The Simpsons and Frasier (under pseudonyms for some bizarre reason best forgotten in the mists of time). I had done a lot of amateur radio drama in my yoof and when the chance came to do it professionally, I jumped at it - it's my favourite medium.
GW: Do you see any differences between producing dramas for distribution on CD, and producing for radio?
GR: Yes and no. Essentially, it's no but there are some nice, if small, differences, the best being that with broadcast radio, you have duration restrictions. A thirty-minute slot needs a 28 minute play. For the CDs, so long as they fit on the CD itself (preferably no more than 77 minutes) you have that freedom to expand or contract as the story, not a schedule, demands. And because the quality needed for a CD is vastly superior than that for mainsteam radio, you can put a lot more time and effort into effects and music, which adds to the depth of the final production.
GW: How do you juggle the roles of writer / producer / director?
GR: Ha! Juggle? Drop the balls you mean! A writer is what it sounds like, I guess. As producer I'm responsible for the commissioning of everything across the Doctor Who range, working with the writers, script-editing, checking with the BBC that they're happy firstly with the storyline, then the finished script, then working with the post-production genii plus the director to see it through to the end. It's then also my job to source the covers, get them approved by the BBC, get everything off to the pressing plant. Then I sleep. If I'm directing too, forget sleep. Then it's casting (my favourite job) and getting the job done in two days in studio. We just do the voices everything else is done in post-production. I believe an audio director's job is 90% in the casting. Get good actors who can sight read, who can act (always a bonus) and who like being part of a small, committed and not terribly rich indy company, and you're there!
GW: A writer attempting a Doctor Who story potentially has 40 years of continuity to take into account. Is it difficult to maintain a fresh perspective to a story while staying on the right side of what each character can or can't do or say?
GR: That's my job as script editor really. I tend to let writers go in the direction they want initially after all, if it's not their creative spark you're after, why not write it all yourself? Then I may say "look, we need to tweak this, cos it's a bit out of character" or "in the last play, the Doctor's companion said 'I've never been to Italy' but you've got her remembering the time she took a Gondolier around Venice', that sort of thing. But the joy of working with so many different writers, often at various stages of a career, is that everything stays fresh. I have to acknowledge as well that I'll often employ writers whose work I'm not 100% fond of but if a good percentage of my target audience are, then it's my job to go ahead with it. I can glance at the 100 or so Dr Who CDs we've done and pick out a dozen or so that I really don't like, really aren't my cup of tea in terms that it's not what I might call "true Doctor Who" but that's tough. My job is to get a varied, almost eclectic range out there so that over the 12 double CDs a year that get out, there's always something for everyone.
GW: Doctor Who has a very vociferous and literate fan community not averse to writing their own stories. How fine is the line between 'fan fiction' and professional writing?
GR: These days? It's pretty slim and often comes down to "if you get paid, it's professional". In an ideal world, I'd say "professionalism is a state of mind, not a paycheck" but as I've worked with some (luckily very, very few) authors who I'd not call professional in their attitude, it's a hard thing to qualify. And, by the way, I'm quite sure they'd accuse me back again of unprofessionalism. It's a term that everyone has a different definition of today. Ultimately, what's important, is the story and the dialogue. And even the latter can be tweaked if the former is good. But without a good, solid story to build words, acting, effects and music into, you have a rocky foundation that crumbles very quickly. You don't need to be a "pro" to write a damned good story, you just need a sensible, rational, attitude and no agendas or egos.
GW: Take us through the process of developing a new story.
GR: I get a storyline in. I may have approached a specific author, they may have approached me or it may be (rarely because I don't encourage it for no reason other than time) a blind submission. If I like it or see potential, we may bash it back and forth a bit, tweak a few things, make sure my own guidelines are adhered to (you would not believe how many people you tell that there can only be X amount of characters, a no I don't want Daleks versus Cybermen and yet writers still say "oh, but can you make an exception for me?" No!) and once we've settled on it, agreed which Doctor and companion etc, it goes to the BBC for approval.
That means it goes through people in London, Cardiff (where the series is made), Bristol, Evesham, all over the world - thank God for email! Then hopefully it comes back with "yup, like this, off you go" and we do. I commission, set a deadline and send a contract. Deadlines pass, I nag, I get garbled messages about dogs eating PCs, Tango dropped onto keyboards, "oh I've been busy writing my new major 8-part series for BBC2" that sort of thing. I nod sagely (because I've already anticipated the delay) and set another deadline (usually no more than a weekend away). If it's not in by then, I start getting grouchy. Or a cry a lot. Depends on whether the writer has a heart made of denser granite than my own. Eventually the script arrives, and we go through a few tweaky drafts, I may do some rewrites in red, email it back and say 'here's my version, whaddyfink'? They then nod and say 'groovy' or cry and threaten to burn my house down. Ultimately we settle on a version and that goes back to the Beeb to be approved. Once that's all done, we head into studio (there may be odd line changes on the day because we've missed something or an actor says "Hell, you can write this but I can't say it") and it's done. Hopefully the writer is still talking to me and we smile and pat each other on the metaphorical back.
GW: Each actor playing the Doctor has given their own interpretation to the role. Are storylines developed with a specific Doctor in mind?
GR: Some, but I tend to suggest that, unless I've done the initial approach in which case I've told the writer what Doctor I'm looking for, people submit a script that'll work with any Doctor/companion combination. Again, the story should be strong enough that it doesn't rely on just one specific actor, because then it's unlikely to have those strong foundations.
GW: What are the tenets of a Doctor Who adventure?
GR: A rollicking good yarn. No sex and gratuitous violence. No swearing. An A plot for the Doctor and a good B plot for the companion. The writer's own characters should never dominate or overshadow our 'leads' - it is a shared universe after all, and the regular characters are what brings the listeners back. A sense of humour. And I quite like it if it's a story that couldn't work on telly or in a book because it uses the audio medium in a way that celebrates its uniqueness.
GW: Some of the dialogue in DW has been known to be a bit wonky at times. Is this kind of stiltedness a key part of the 'voice' of DW, or is it something you'd rather avoid in your scripts?
GR: I try to avoid it unless it's deliberately black humour. But you know, sometimes it just can't be avoided. But we try...
GW: What are the challenges of transferring a TV character to audio? Are you trying to do 'TV on radio' or are you taking the format in a more audio-centric direction?
GR: God no, you can't do TV on radio - flaws, I'm sorry to say, I heard in the two BBC Radio versions of Doctor Who done in the 90s. They were full of lots of "You see that man over there, in green, walking towards that blue car. He's carrying a gun and he's pointing it at the man in red!" Okay that's an exaggeration, but it's something we must avoid. The audio medium is a joy - it requires the use of imagination and a bit of concentration (I often get criticised for putting too much sound into a story because people don't always pick it up on first listen whilst mowing the lawn or driving to work! Hell, you don't mow the lawn while watching an opera or read a book while seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert. Why multi-task whilst listening to audio drama?). So I won't treat the audience as fools, nor will I dumb down the quality. Audio is there to be listened to and offers so many unique opportunities, especially in this genre, to scare, surprise and trick that no visual medium can ever do.
GW: With the current TV series we've seen Doctor Who become a lot faster-paced, in line with modern tastes. Given that you're producing modern dramas for classic characters, do you consider pacing a story as appropriate to the era of that character?
GR: Tricky one. TV is faster-paced generally these days - soaps are mainly responsible for that. The attention span has dropped so that few scenes these days last longer than two minutes. I sound like a grumpy old man. Hell, I am! So no, I won't do that. Again, a scene is as long, or as short, as the story requires - I hate to see the tail wagging the dog.
GW: You've not only managed to persuade Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann to appear in the audio plays, you've also recruited several original companions and even 'guest stars' like Mark Gatiss and Derek Jacobi. I'm guessing your production budgets aren't collossal, so why do you think they're so keen to take part?
GR: Because Doctor Who has become part of our culture, after 40 years people have a healthy respect for it. You don't have to like it especially, but you acknowledge it. TARDIS and Dalek crop up in everyday conversation now, even though for many years the origins may have been forgotten. And actors like the chance to let go, to be a bit extreme or play trees that walk, or cars that kill people. They're bored of playing Man in Suburban Street or Psychokiller in the Court so they can come to us and let their hair down. And we promise them a nice, relaxed fun day, with a free lunch. Hey yup, it's true. Free lunches do exist in the world of Big Finish!
GW: I'd expect your largest audience is ardent fans. With Doctor Who returning to mainstream television, is Big Finish hoping to reach a wider audience?
GR: Obviously we are, but I'm aware that's a daunting prospect. It's one thing for someone in their early teens, when disposable income becomes the norm, to say "I really like Chris and Billie in Dr Who, what else is out there?" and buy the three novels or a big book of monsters. But it's a different ballgame if they investigate the show and suddenly find it's got a 40 year history, eight previous Doctors, three hundred odd novels, a hundred odd CD adventures plus the VHS and DVDs of the old stories. I certainly wouldn't blame anyone who said "No thanks, I'll stick with Chris and Billie and go forward". But for those willing to take a gamble to look back as well, there's a rich, glorious vein of good stories, good acting and good writing in all Doctor Who's various mediums that, if dipped into, may lure you back in properly. On the audio front, it's my job to make sure that anyone dipping into the range can find a self-contained, straightforward exciting adventure without simultaneously disappointing the thousands who've been with us from the start. It's that trick of creating arcs that, if you know them, it's an extra ingredient, if you don't, they don't detract or distract.
GW: You've also written Doctor Who adventures as novels. How does the writing process compare to writing audio scripts? Would you consider adapting your novels to scripts?
GR: I'd never adapt a book as a script. mine or anyone's. Different mediums, different needs. The novel writing, Dr Who or otherwise, is vastly different. The audios are a collaborative event between the writer, me as script editor, the Beeb as licence holder, the actors, the post-production editors... Novel writing is, for me, solitary. I don't let anyone other than the commissioning editor read or contribute (I know many other writers who work diametrically opposite to that, and if that works for them, fabby - but it's not for me). I respect book editors and, beyond the fact they're paying me so it behooves me to do what they ask in terms of rewrites, I understand their job is to create a good product and their ideas and desires should always be listened to. Argue about 'em, yes. So I don't agree because... but I have no time for authors who decry the editors (hey guys, the money you cashed? That was doing a job of work, you were paid by the editors) and accuse them of "squashing my voice" or somesuch rubbish. If the book or story needs changing that much, your "voice" is probably pretty crappy to start with. As a freelancer, you are always on a work for hire arrangement. They pay, you work.
GW: Does writing for a 'licenced' property make it any easier or harder to get published? Is the path to publication any different than writing a wholly-original novel?
GR: No, I don't believe so. The story still has to be good. Regardless of what "range" you pitch your story at. That always has to be the bottom line. A good story sells.
GW: If it wasn't for cult TV and movies, what would you be doing right now?
GR: Crying into a pint of blackcurrent and lemonade about how crap my life is as I make my way home from the 9 to 5 office job.
The Big Finish audio plays are available from Amazon and that, and also directly from the Big Finish website. For Gary's novels, including Divided Loyalties, Instruments of Darkness and Business Unusual, see your favourite bookshop.