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28 October 2014

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Dr Who and rose
Dr Who and Rose

Meet the book Doctor

by Matt Gibson, website contributor
We grill Justin Richards, creative director for the BBC's Doctor Who books. But did he he reveal any trade - or Dalek - secrets?

Richards is also the author of over a dozen genre and SF novels.

His most recent works are Monsters and Villains, a non-fiction book exploring various Who baddies, and The Clockwise Man, one of three new novels featuring the ninth Doctor and Rose, as played by Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper.

The Reading Room took him off to an alien detention cell (well, okay, actually it was the manager's office at a city book store) to pump him for information.

MG: Having read your new novel, The Clockwise Man, I'm guessing that you must have known a lot about the new series before you wrote it?

"I was a Dalek fan before I was a Doctor Who fan. I couldn't understand why the Daleks didn't win every time, and why they weren't on every week. "

JR: Myself, Stephen Cole and Jacqueline Rayner, who did the first three new novels, had meetings with Russell T. Davies, the script editor, and the brand manager from about April last year onwards. 

We had a lot of advance information; we got to see the script after signing in blood on various bits of BBC paper, and eventually, we saw rushes and rough-cuts.

But by then, it was October last year, and the books had to be finished by the end of the month.

So yes, we had a lot of advance information, but the production cycle in publishing is so long that you really do need to be well in advance.

MG: So you write to a very tight schedule: what's the fastest you've ever written a novel?

JR: It was actually a Doctor Who book that another author was unable to deliver on time. I had a phone call saying "How quickly could you write a Doctor Who book?" I said, "Well, how long have I got?" and the answer was "Three weeks"!

And they lied - it was two and a half. That was called Millennium Shock, just in case anyone who reads it wonders why it's fast and frantic and furious: that's how it was written.

MG: Is it force of discipline, or do you just always write quickly?

JR: It's discipline and technique, I suppose.  If you know you've got to write so many words per day, then you've just got to write them, otherwise you have to write even more the day after.

You want to make it as good as you can, but you can go quite quickly if you have to. I can, anyway. Hopefully it doesn't show too much!

Captain Jack

MG: What's it like writing for an already-established universe and characters?

JR: It's not as restrictive as you might think. With Doctor Who there's a lot of background and continuity and setup - all of which you can ignore! You can go and do something completely different, in your own world.

It's slightly more complicated for the new series, because you've got a large ensemble cast. You've got the Doctor and Rose, but you've also got Rose's family and Mickey and so on. And then for the next three books which are coming out in September, we've got the setup of the Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack.

MG: Ah, so Captain Jack's here to stay for a while, is he?

JR: I can't tell you, I'm afraid! The next books are set after episode 11 and before episode 12. Whether he's still with us at the end of this series, whether the Doctor's still with us at the end of this series, or Rose, or anyone, remains to be seen.

MG: Do you consider yourself to be a children's writer?

JR: Yes and no. I don't consider the Doctor Who books to be children's books, although they are books that children read, and should be able to read. But their main function is not simply as children's books.

I'm not doing down children's books, because I am a children's writer: I write other things specifically for children, like my Invisible Detective series, though adults read them as well.

Family bracket

I think it's a great shame that there isn't a 'family' bracket for books, any more than until Doctor Who came back that there was a 'family' bracket on television.

I'm a writer and I write what interests me, and I suppose because I'm a big kid that means I'm well-qualified to write for children.

MG: I saw Points of View last week with a few people writing in to say that The Empty Child, the most recent Doctor Who two-parter, was too frightening for children, and shouldn't be allowed.

JR: I don't think so. There are limits, but it's not to do with being 'scary,' but to do with horror and gore and violence. Being scared is quite healthy. My seven-year-old boy was quite scared by the first episode, but when it was all right at the end he was quite happy.

MG: Why do you think we enjoy being scared so much?

JR: Probably because we know that really it's safe. There's a thrill to be had just as in action adventure, putting yourself in the place of someone who's in trouble, and getting out of trouble. 

It probably goes back to the old fear of the dark and the adrenaline rush as your body gears up to run away. But yes, there is a buzz from being scared, and then that being resolved.

MG: How much influence do you think Doctor Who has on children?

A Dalek
Favourite villain?

JR: I think you can overstate the case of television or any medium being a good or a bad influence.

On the other hand, there are certainly things you can learn, and having role models you can look at and live up to is a good thing. I think almost all children as well as adults can tell fiction from reality. Even if they choose to blur the lines at the front of their minds, at the back of their minds they know what's real and what isn't. 

MG: Your book Monsters and Villains hints that you're interested in the bad guys in Doctor Who. What's your favourite monster?

JR: I was a Dalek fan before I was a Doctor Who fan. I couldn't understand why the Daleks didn't win every time, and why they weren't on every week. As far as I was concerned it was called 'Doctor Who and the Daleks' and there ought to be Daleks in it, no matter what!

They're not the monsters I find most frightening, but they are my favourite. I find the Cybermen more frightening.

MG: Have you enjoyed the new Dalek episodes?

JR: I haven't seen the last episode. I've seen episode 12, though, with an amazing preview of episode 13 at the end. I've enjoyed them very much, yes. It's managed to reinvent the Daleks, just as we've reinvented Doctor Who. Keeping the essentials, but building on that, updating it, bringing it into the 21st Century.

MG: What attracted you to Doctor Who in the first place?

JR: It was, and is unique: it's about the only thing on TV that encourages children to use their imagination, and that's probably even more true now, sadly, than it was in 1963 when it started. 

Part of the appeal is that you never know what's going to happen next, where you're going to go next, even when you're going to go next.

Good TV

MG: You think there’s a dearth of good children’s television at the moment?

JR: I suppose so. Part of the reason for it, though, is that there are so many other things to do these days, there’s computers and the internet, and a revival of the cinema, and there's 10,000 channels so there's so many calls on our time and our children's time that things get squeezed out. 

It's sad that good imaginative escapist narrative-driven television is one of those things, in the children's arena and in adult drama.

MG: Have you written for TV?

JR: I have, yes, but not that I'd own up to! I've written episodes of soap opera, but nothing original. It's something I'd like to do, but it's finding the time, and also it's very difficult to break into the market, especially if you don't want to do a formula show, and you don't want to do soaps. I've done a bit of that. I didn't find it terribly inspiring, but it was good practice.

MG: You're quite well-placed to break into doing a Doctor Who script yourself, though?

JR: Perhaps, but the writers that Russell's looking for are writers with a lot of TV experience, people who know their craft. I know my craft, but it's a different one.

last updated: 10/06/05
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