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Interview: Andrew Smith

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Andrew SmithAndrew Smith is better than you, okay? Let’s just get that out of the way right now. This guy has written words that Tom Baker has spoken on screen. In Doctor Who. What THE HELL have you done that could EVEN compare? Yeah, EXACTLY. Compared to Andrew Smith you’re, at best, on a par with that thick mucus I sometimes cough up in the morning (I do not enjoy a healthy diet).

Andrew Smith wrote ‘Full Circle’ for Tom Baker’s final season, and can still be found writing Who-Stuff (and beyond) for Big Finish. Here he is being a gent and flapping his gums about Who:

2 & JamieWhen did Doctor Who first enter your Mind Palace and set up home?

The show started a year and a bit after I was born, but my first memories are of watching Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines up against the Cybermen, Yeti and Quarks.  So probably around 1967.  The first story I can point at and say ‘I definitely watched that’ was The Web of Fear, as Yeti in the Underground are etched in my memory.  I may have seen earlier Cybermen stories, as Cybermen are prominent in my viewing memories.

akDoctor Who fans hate a lot of things with a fiery passion about the show they love; what’s a generally derided element (story, Doctor, monster, outfit, WHATEVS) that you actually think is ace, skill and super nifty?

I’m wary of any story or story element being labelled as bad as if fandom was some monolithic entity with a single point of view.  Doctor Who is such a mix of styles, tones and story genres that there will always be a spread of sometimes polarised opinions whatever is on screen.  One story where I was very surprised by the amount of immediately negative reaction was The Rings of Akhaten.  I loved it, and went onto Twitter immediately afterwards expecting to read an outpouring of Akhaten love.  But what I read was not that.  I remain surprised by that and will continue to feel a warm happy glow whenever I think of this story.

Full Circle 4Do you remember the initial spark of the idea that became ‘Full Circle’?

What I remember is coming up with the idea of the natural cycle of the planet first, before any of the characters in the story and even before the Marshmen.  It was always about the setting, this lush verdant world that regularly transformed into a life-threatening mist covered environment, from which various monstrous life forms emerged to protect the planet.

What did you make of the finished televised version of your script; was there anything that surprised you about it?

I was really pleased with it.  What a cast; and there was exceptional work by all involved including Peter Grimwade and film cameraman Max Samett.  One thing that surprised me was the appearance of the Marshmen.  In the script I think I described them as ‘half-men half-beasts’, and I imagined them as being similar to cavemen in appearance.  So when I turned up on location and saw several Creatures From the Black Lagoon queueing at the catering van yes, I was surprised!  But it was all to the good.  JNT told me that they were the most expensive costumes on Doctor Who to date, because they were designed around scuba diving suits.

first sontaranWere there ever plans for you to write for the show again?

I was commissioned for the following season, a story called ‘The Torsan Triumvirate’.  I remember very little about it except that it was set in the modern day and involved aliens living as humans bringing together three parts of a device to initiate an invasion.  That story reached the scene breakdown stage but wasn’t produced.  In 1983 Eric Saward asked me to come up with a Sontaran story for Colin and Nicola’s first full season.  That was ‘The First Sontarans’, which also got to scene breakdown stage.  Happily I still have my material for that (unlike The Torsan Triumvirate) so when Big Finish asked me to adapt it for audio I was in a position to do so.   I am so very pleased that The First Sontarans now has an audience – Big Finish did such an excellent job with it, as ever.

Please say something nice about The Kandyman- and mean it!

He’s sweet.

tom bakerYou seem to not only be a Who writer, but also a massive fan of the show, something that wasn’t always the case with classic Who writers. Did it seem surreal at the time to be writing for Tom Baker?

I do remember a particular moment when I was standing on the platform at Argyle Street station in Glasgow during the period I was writing the script, thinking to myself ‘My ten year old self watching Jon Pertwee wouldn’t have thought for a moment that I’d be writing for Dr Who just a few years later’.  And it was a buzz to find myself writing scene directions and dialogue for my favourite television programme.  But more importantly, I was finally writing a TV drama script for production.  I’d written radio comedy sketches and even a couple of TV sketches, but this was a big breakthrough for me as a writer.  I’d been approaching Doctor Who and other dramas with scripts and storylines for about three years at this point.  I went to great pains not to be perceived as a fan (apart from anything itself, being a declared fan at that time was not something you flaunted if you worked on Doctor Who), but as a writer.  And my ambitions were wider than just writing for Doctor Who.  But of course, writing for the Doctor was a particular joy.  And I was very glad I managed to write for Tom Baker, the Doctor I’d grown into maturity with.

You were quite young when you penned ‘Full Circle’, it’s an opportunity that would be impossible with today’s show; do you think this is a healthy thing for the modern show, or just a necessity considering its importance to the BBC these days?

It’s neither healthy nor unhealthy, it’s just a feature of programme making these days.  I was asked to write my script after sending in a number of unsolicited scripts and storylines.  Nowadays unsolicited material is not read, mainly as we are living in a more litigious society and this ensures that no-one can claim that an idea from a rejected story was then used in the programme.

Although the opportunities to submit unsolicited material and catch a producer or script editor’s eye are fewer these days, there are other ways in which it is far easier to get somewhere with your TV writing aspirations.  From writing initiatives like the BBC Writers Room, to the availability of software that helps format a script professionally, and readily available archives of scripts and professional screenwriting advice.  Also, there are many more outlets.  In 1980 we had only three television channels in the UK.

The Daleks' Master Plan 2Are there any missing or partially missing stories you’re hoping will turn up next?

Most of them!  Top of my wish-list to the Missing Stories Santa would be the Dalek Master Plan (if anyone out there hasn’t heard the soundtrack recording, you must put this right immediately – it’s a glorious story), followed closely by Power of the Daleks.

Adric was first introduced in your story and went on to be quite a contentious, and in some quarters derided, companion; did you feel at all protective towards the poor sod and his badge for mathematical excellence?

I had no idea there was any anti-Adric sentiment out there until years afterwards – in fact, when the Earthshock DVD came out.  It came as quite a surprise.  I didn’t feel protective towards him, although I was and am glad to have introduced him.  He was derived from a character description given to me by Chris (Bidmead) at our first script meeting, and I inserted him into my existing story.  I created the badge for mathematical excellence, and I’m glad that had its day in the sun by bringing down a Cyberman at a critical time!

pertwee JoDo you have a favourite era (or eras) of the show, or do you love it all as though it were flesh birthed from your own man-womb?

There are many factors that mark a Doctor Who ‘era’: the Doctors, of course.  Also producers, script editors, companions.   I don’t see them as being in competition with each other for our favours and I do love the programme across the board.  However, I’ll always have a special hankering for the old black and white episodes, and for when Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning were the TARDIS crew.  And, for an example of when you had the perfect storm of cast and production crew, I don’t think you can do better than the Philip Hinchcliffe years.

Not too long after working on Who you seemed to move away from writing as a career. Was this a purposeful decision or a mutual falling out?

I’d been interested in policing from my mid-teens after a police careers talk at my school.  I worked as a professional writer for four and a half years and was happy and productive (in all that time I always had a commission to work on), but the lack of security worried me, and I found it a bit solitary.  I was also aware that, having started at such a young age, I might have been lacking in the life experience that is so important to a writer.  And, I was still drawn by the idea of being a police officer, particularly by the opportunities for excitement and a bit of an adventure.  So I decided to give that a shot, I joined the Metropolitan Police in 1984 and have had thirty exciting, rewarding years doing that.   

doctorwho604Favourite modern Who episode/episodes, and why?

Dalek, Midnight, Human Nature, Blink, Silence in the Library, The Doctor’s Wife… that’s just off the top of my head.  Why?  They make me smile when I think of them.  There are plenty more like that.

What baddie that has yet to be featured in the modern series would you like to see back? No, you can’t go the easy option and say The Quarks, pick something else.

The Krynoids.  Let’s see what today’s costumes and effects could do with transforming an unlucky victim into a great big towering throbbing thrashing mass of green hate.

FDWM mcgannavourite piece of non-telly Dr Who ‘stuff’?

Doctor Who Magazine.  I have absolutely no idea how Tom and Peter and their co-DWMers manage to produce such a consistently fabulous product month after month, but I’m in awe and delighted that they do.  And hurray to their predecessors too.

Re toys/gadgets, my fave is the Cyberman shower radio.

In recent years you have begun writing for the good Doctor again, penning audio adventures for Big Finish. How did this return come about?

Soon after the E-Space Trilogy came out on DVD I was invited to be a guest at a convention in Glasgow called Army of Guests.  Big Finish were there of course, in the form of David Richardson and Nick Briggs.  David talked to me about The First Sontarans and asked if I’d be interested in writing for Big Finish, which of course I was.  And then, a few weeks later, he got in touch to ask if I’d like to write a Companion Chronicle for the second Romana set in E-Space.  That became The Invasion of E-Space, and I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write a few more since then.

001_domain_of_the_voord_cover_largeDo you have a piece of Doctor Who that you’ve written that you’re most proud of?

I’m proud of them all in their own ways.  I was very pleased with how The First Sontarans turned out.  And I remember feeling particularly happy when I came to the end of my first draft of the script for Domain of the Voord, the first in a new Big Finish range, The Early Adventures, that comes out in September.  That’s a First Doctor story starring William Russell and Carole Ann Ford.

Favourite classic era story/stories?

Robots of Death, and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (that was a good ten weeks).

robert holmesDo you have a favourite Dr Who writer from the first fifty years of the show? You can include Big Finish or Who novel writers!

Among the writers whose names in the Radio Times (because that was all the notice we got back then) always made me want to see their episodes were: Robert Holmes (obvs); Chris Boucher; Robert Banks Stewart; and Chris Bidmead (and that’s not just because he was my script editor – Chris is one of the most original thinkers ever to put pen to Doctor Who).   I couldn’t possibly pick out names from among m’Big Finish colleagues.

Who is YOUR Doctor and companion? You can choose more than one combination if you’re a weak sort!

Second Doctor and Jamie.  Seared into young me’s imagination as THE Doctor and Companion pairing.  I liked their comic strip appearances too.

happy vlleyNeil Gaiman would have been a writer on many Who fans fantasy wish list; is there anyone you’d be interested to see tackle an episode?

Sally Wainwright or Lucy Gannon.  And not because they’re women and the series has had a dearth of female writers – those names were the first to pop into my head, because I’m massive fans of both of them.   Sally’s ‘Happy Valley’ has been the best drama on television this year, or in many a year, and that’s a title that faces stiff competition because drama output is of a very high standard at the moment.  Lucy’s is a name I’ve known since the Soldier, Soldier years.  Both of them consistently deliver in spades and I would salivate to see their names attached to a Doctor Who script.

Go ahead and plug something, you money hungry monster:

I was so very pleased to be asked to contribute to Big Finish’s new ‘Early Adventures’ range,  and as I mentioned earlier I was pleased with my script for ‘Domain of the Voord’.  I recommend the whole series, which has an engaging format to bring us powerful stories featuring the early Doctors.  And if anyone wants to know what it truly means to be Voord, you should check out Domain …

Domain of The Voord

Away from Doctor Who, I and everyone involved has been blown away by the reaction to the first series of Survivors , which came out on audio in June.   I wrote one episode of the four and the whole thing is an assault on the senses.  The sound design by Neil Gardner and the  hugely original ambient music by Nick Briggs polish off a production that has one of the best casts ever assembled by Big Finish.  It may make you cry, it will definitely make you think.  And you don’t need to have seen the TV show.

Survivors: Series One

Thanks Andrew!

@DoctorWhoThing

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Author: Matthew Stott

Writer. http://mrmatthewstott.com/

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