Almost a decade ago Doctor Who fans received a continuity jolt when the Big Finish audio ‘The Eye of the Scorpion’ introduced a new companion to the 5th Doctor’s roster. This companion, Erimem, a Egyptian female Pharaoh played by Caroline Morris, was created by author Iain McLaughlin. Earlier this year Iain joined for a friendly chat to discuss his writing before, during, and after that first trip in the TARDIS.
Thanks, Iain, for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with a little information who you are and where you come from. How did you first discover Doctor Who? Are you a long-term fan?
I’m immensely dull really. I’ve lived in Dundee on the east coast of Scotland all my days. I could fib and say I moonlight as a James Bond type superspy, flitting from country to country, shmoozing Kelly Brook lookalikes on the way as I save the world at weekends… but it wouldn’t be strictly, completely – or even slightly – true.
I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember. I’m told that it started when Jon Pertwee was taking over as the Doctor. My Dad watched the show after the football results and I was perched on his knee. I’ve been addicted to Who all my days, really.
What first sparked your interest in writing? I understand you did an amount of comic book writing in the 80s and 90s. Tell us a little about that period and about comic writing in general. Which comic titles did you write for and do you have any favorite experiences or stories?
I’ve always loved reading – books, magazines, anything. When I left school, my plan was to go to University to study English. Journalism or teaching English was the basic plan. But my mother lost her job, money was tight and I applied for a job at DC Thomson, a publisher in Dundee. And so, at the age of 18, I got a job writing comics for children. I thought I’d do it for a year… and I’m still there, still on staff writing comics. August 2010 will be my 25th anniversary. I love writing funny comic strips for kids. I’ve worked on a lot of our comics, but most of my time has been on the Dandy where I was deputy editor for four years and the Beano, where I am now. In my time with the company I’ve written for most of our characters – Dennis & Gnasher, the Bash Street Kids, Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx, The Broons, Oor Wullie… at a guess I’d say I’ve written for over a hundred of our characters and in total I’ve done over ten thousand comic scripts. I’m very fond of all the stories I write just now but a character named Minnie the Minx is my favourite at the moment. She goes 150% at absolutely everything – she’ll do anything if it’ll be fun. Most of the stories are funnies but every now and then I get the chance to write something more serious. One of my favourites was The Comet. It was heavily influenced by the feel of 1960s ITC TV shows. We sneaked little cameos for various 60s characters into the comics – Steed and Mrs Peel were stuck in a jail cell in one story, Professor Quatermass was in another story. When the hero finally married his girlfriend, the 4th and 8th Doctors were in the crowd at the ceremony. That was a lot of fun to do. And very self-indulgent.
How and when did you first become a Doctor Who writer? How is writing for Doctor Who (or any) books and audios similar and/or different than writing for comics?
In about 1988 I submitted a script for the TV show to Andrew Cartmel. It was called Endeavour and was about nuclear dumping in the oceans. It wasn’t particularly good but Andrew Cartmel saw something in the writing and he took the time to write a very encouraging and helpful letter but by then Doctor Who was off-air. To be honest, I thought it was a particularly generous thing for him to do, because he had already moved on to Casualty and he encouraged me to send something to him there. But my Dad died and I didn’t think about writing anything but comics for a while. I thought about maybe trying to pitch something to Virgin when they were doing the MAs but I had no confidence at all in my prose style and I bottled out of trying. I got on with writing other things, in fact I had a chat with BBV at one point, and then Big Finish started their Doctor Who series. I wasn’t going to try sending them anything. I thought Doctor Who was a ship that had sailed for me… but I couldn’t resist it. I had to try. So I sent three complete scripts to Gary Russell. He sent two of them back but hung onto the third one, and suggested some changes. That became Eye of the Scorpion. Gary was a fantastic teacher when it came to writing for audio. There were a lot of things I had never considered and Gary pointed out mistakes, things I shouldn’t do. I owe Gary a lot and I’m immensely grateful to Gary and Jason Haigh-Ellery for taking a chance on Eye of the Scorpion.
The real difference between a radio/audio script or a novel and writing a comic script is scale. The comic scripts I normally write are between 2 and 4 pages long. A four part Doctor Who would run to 120-130 pages. It still comes down to working out the situation, the characters, the story but with a longer piece you have much more scope. Obviously it’s a lot more work but a longer story gives the opportunity to develop characters and situations more, working out what the piece is trying to say, what the characters are going to get out of the story… But a story is a story – the difference is size and the scope it gives.
You wrote the first Big Finish Doctor Who audio story with 5th Doctor companion Erimem, as well as an origin novel for the character, The Coming of the Queen. Describe the process of how you received that story commission and how authors might be commissioned to write a story in general.
Scorpion was submitted on spec and I was immensely lucky that Gary Russell saw something in it worth pursuing. Everything fopr Big Finish since then – audios, short stories and the Erimem novel – they all came from emails from an editor or producer at BF asking if I wanted to pitch a story idea for a gig. It’s very rare for any producer or publisher to have an open-door policy for submissions. The work involved in dealing with that would be absolutely enormous. I was incredibly lucky that I sneaked in when BF were accepting unsolicited ideas. I was also immensely lucky that Telos accepted submissions and that they saw something of worth in the idea for a novella, Blood And Hope. My advice now would be to forget Doctor Who and go and write other things. Go and make a reputation as a writer, prove you can do it, and then to go knocking (or better yet, get an agent to go knocking) at Big Finish’s door or at BBC Books’ door.
On the subject of Erimem, how was it designing and giving voice to a new companion for the Doctor? Did you make any conscious decisions as an author to give Erimem an original edge or quality as a TARDIS team member? At the time, 2001, there was some controversy amongst fans to adding a companion to the 5th Doctor’s roster – did you have any feelings or responses to that criticism then or now?
All through the writing of the script for Eye of the Scorpion, Erimem was never intended to be a companion. The first I heard of her staying aboard was at the end of the first day of the story’s recording session, when Gary Russell asked if I’d mind if they used her again. I knew Gary liked the character – he had said as much in emails but until then we hadn’t discussed her staying aboard the Tardis. When I was writing Scorpion – particularly the Hartnell-homage Doctor-less part 2 – I knew that Erimem was working as a character with Peri. I liked the camp-fire scene with the Doctor at the start of part 4 as well, and I thought that maybe I could do something more with her in future. In fact I’d worked out a rough story idea for bringing her back in a story with the 6th Doctor. It was called Valley of the Dying Sun and would have been a very Indiana Jones-type adventure and a sort of sequel to Pyramids of Mars.
I know there was a lot of controversy about Ermem joining Peri and the Doctor… and it doesn’t bother me a bit. I once read online that I’d destroyed Doctor Who’s continuity by adding Erimem. And it still doesn’t bother me. Doctor Who’s continuity is malleable and I don’t have any problems with extra stories and companions being added to what appeared on TV. I only care whether or not it’s a good story. Erimem added a lot to Peri’s character, Evelyn has been fantastic for the 6th Doctor. I’d hate to think people would deprive themselves of some really enjoyable stories just because it fudges continuity a bit. And I tend to think that I gave the 5th Doctor 3 new companions – Erimem, her cat Antranak, and in the novella Blood And Hope, he takes a confederate soldier to a place of healing – I like to think that they had a bunch of adventures before coming back to pick up Peri and Erimem. And if that really winds people up… good. I’m a bit of a git, really.
Once more on Erimem, what was it like working with Caroline Morris, the actress who portrayed the character? What do you feel she brought to the character? How was it for you as a writer pairing Erimem, a then-new female companion from Ancient Egypt, with Peri, an established female companion from mid-80s America?
I’ve hardly met Caroline, to be honest. I think we’ve said hello a couple of times in the studio and at a convention and that’s about it. But, she was fantastic as Erimem. I am convinced that she is the reason Erimem was kept on as a companion. She really brought the character to life, giving her personality and depth. She took some dialogue which was functional – to move the plot from A to B – and added nuances to it which I hadn’t put in there. She got the nobility, the fragility, the courage and the exuberance… and she played it as a really nice contrast with Nicola Bryant’s Peri. Having such different backgrounds and personalities made the dialogue between Peri a lot of fun to write. They were always great fun to write together. The differences in the characters really offered opportunities for a lot of drama as well as comedy. When actors make make dialogue spark, it makes a writer’s job so much easier. Writing everything for Erimem after Scorpion was a bit easier because Caroline had given her speech rhythms and personality. She was always fun to write. I’d love to write more Erimem.
You often collaborate with author Claire Bartlett. How and when did this partnership begin? On which stories in and out of Doctor Who have you written together? How does her style compare or contrast with yours as a writer, and how is it in general to write with another person on a project: do the opinions merge, divide, or co-exist in the final product? Do you have any plans to work with Claire again?
Pretty much everything I’ve written over the past 5 or 6 years has been with Claire. She is very strong on characterisation and on making sure there’s logic to the plots. She’s not a genre fan at all. She watches Doctor Who and that’s it. I’m a self-confessed card-carrying badge-wearing proud-to-be-one geek. Claire’s not, so when we get working on a genre script, for Doctor Who or the Tomorrow People or whatever, she doesn’t bring any baggage. I think we complement each other pretty well. It’s very rare that we disagree on anything major. We’ve had one major disagreement over a section of the Erimem novel. I had done the first draft and it over-ran by about 40,000 words. Claire did the second draft and brought it down by about 32,000 words. One of the bits she binned was a character scene between Erimem and her brother. I thought it was important, she didn’t and in the end, the scene had to go and I have to concede that Claire was probably right.
Having said all of that, I’m going back to writing solo for a while. Claire has just had her first baby so she’s got other priorities at the minute. So, for the while, Claire is backing off a little. She still wants to be involved in some projects but she will be a bit busy being Mum.
It is known amongst followers of Big Finish audios that you have had several projects for the Bernice Summerfield and Tomorrow People audio ranges which sadly never materialized. Can you share any information on what prevented these stories from production and what would they have been about?
The Bernice Summerfield story, Figure of Eight, was fun to write. At the recording of Eye of the Scorpion, I asked Gary if I could do anything else. He suggested trying a Bernice Summerfield, and so I did. I sent a synopsis. Before I heard back, I got on with writing a full script which I sent. I was surprised when it appeared on Big Finish’s schedule on their website because it hadn’t been commissioned. It disappeared pretty quickly. I don’t think it gelled with what they had in mind with Benny’s character. It was fun, asked some questions about how science and religion can fit together but it didn’t really fit with where Benny was going. Of course, it may have been rubbish as well. I’ve never actually discussed it with Gary. I must collar him at a convention sometime and have a chat about it. Or I could buy Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story and see what it says in there because it’s covered in that book. That advert was brought to you by the Big Finish arm of the Shameless Plugging Corporation.
Our story for season 7 of The Tomorrow People was to be called The Screaming Planet. It was about and entire planet of telepaths being wiped out. It was a one-cd story and would have been 4th in the series. We were really disappointed that BF had the licence pulled before we could write this one. We were really looking forward to it – it would have been very fast-paced and very dark. I think that whole season would have been very strong. Mark Wright and Cav Scott were putting together something very good there. It’s a real shame that the series had to be cancelled.
To complete the hat-trick, we did the story that was replaced by Phobos in the first run of 8th Doctor/Lucie adventures. Our story went through a lot of rewrites and changes before Nick Briggs and Alan Barnes decided it would be best to let someone else cast a fresh eye on the notion, which Eddie Robson did. We were sad that it was cancelled – I think we could have done something interesting with the story – but we fully understand and respect Nick and Alan’s decision. They were very nice about it and there are no hard feelings about it at all.
Although you are a known and respected Doctor Who author, you have not contributed to that series for some years now. Do you have any plans to return to Doctor Who in the future? Do you have any hopes to write for the New Series book ranges, or even on television?
Known and respected? That’s probably the nicest thing anybody’s said to me in ages. Thanks very much. I would always jump at the chance to write Doctor Who. I don’t have a track record with BBC Books so I’m not as likely to get a gig there as writers who have worked for them before and proven themselves. And I understand that. I have been in the position of having to pick people to commission and it’s always sensible to use people you know you can trust. But there’s always the hope that an email will ping into the Inbox and the opportunity will arise. Claire and I have a lot of ideas we’d love the chance to work on. I think for both of us, the thing we’d like most is a Torchwood of some sort. We’ve got something really unsettling worked out for that. Claire’s very good at the dark and murky stuff. I’d really like to do something like a Companion Chronicle. I like that format. I think it’s a fantastic forum for really getting inside the characters’ heads and for pulling some powerful drama out of that. We’ve got a few roughed out that we’d like to do something with.
On the subject of the New Series, what are your thoughts or opinions of the so-called “RTD Era” of Doctor Who? Have you any hopes or expectations for the program under Steven Moffat and Matt Smith?
The RTD era? Loved it. I didn’t have a clue what to expect when Rose started – but that was still Doctor Who. Faster, slicker… but he was still the same Doctor and it was still the same show – it had just grown up. It took all the best of the original show and filtered it through modern drama. It’s exciting, fun, intelligent and sometimes incredibly moving. Russell Davies and his team took the best TV programme in the world and they made it better. It’s a great show for adults – but how fantastic must it have been for today’s kids to discover this incredible show? And Doctor Who brought family drama back to Saturday night TV on the BBC. For that alone, RTD deserves kudos by the bucketload. It’s not perfect but there’s a reason it keeps winning Most Popular Drama show at the National TV Awards. Because it’s bloody great. I know there were wonky bits and some places where convenient plot devices shunted things along – but it was still brilliant.
I’m hoping that Steven Moffatt’s Doctor Who will be a little bit darker, a little bit scarier than it has been. I love gothic horror – my favourite era of classic Doctor Who is the Hinchcliffe/Holmes years – and I think Doctor Who does gothic better than just about any other show. Steve Moffatt’s episodes for Russell Davies have been full-on scary. I’m hoping for more of that. As for Matt Smith, I haven’t seen much of him in other shows. Every time there’s a regeneration I have a knee-jerk reaction, thinking the new bloke won’t be as good as the ‘real’ Doctor – and it usually takes about half an episode to completely accept the new guy. I’m expecting great things from this series.
Since I answered the question first, the first 6 episodes of the series have aired here in the UK. I’m loving it. The first few episodes weren’t as dark as I expected but they did showcase the new Doctor and Amy really well. However, the two Weeping Angels episodes were just wonderfully creepy and scary. Perfect Doctor Who. Matt Smith is really strong. He reminds me a lot of Patrick Troughton, which can only be a good thing. He’s very alien but he’s still got that lovely warmth of the Doctor about him. And Amy is a quirky delight. They’re well matched and spark off each other really effectively.
What details can you share with us on any of your current and upcoming writing projects beyond Doctor Who?
We write for an American radio station, Imagination Theater. We have a couple of ongoing series with them. Kerides the Thinker is half hour mysteries set in Alexandria in 276BC. It’s meant to have a bit of a Third Man vibe – lots of fun and flirting as well as horrible murders. The other occasional series is a set of hour-long horror stories in the style of Hammer movies. The first two were The Heart of Frankenstein and Curse of the Mummy. We’d like to do all the other horror staples – the Werewolf, Jekyll and Hyde… Dracula is the next one we’re planning to write but the next one to be recorded should be Maestro, which is more akin to the Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. Oh, and we’ve just finished our first Sherlock Holmes script for Imagination Theater, which is proving to be a very interesting challenge. In the Conan-Doyle canon, Holmes is often a very passive character, assimilating knowledge before delivering the answers. I found it hard to keep Holmes interesting that way so I’ve made him slightly more pro-active.
We’ve also just finished the first draft of a noir crime novel called Movie Star, which needs a fair bit of work before we’re happy with it. It’s very nasty but it needs to be much bleaker and far darker. It’s unusual to look at a first draft and think that it needs more sex and violence, including a scene where the hero dishes out a really horrible beating to a deserving scumbag.
After that… we’ve got a lot of ideas. A noir novel based around a Scottish football team. An epistolic novel following two families through World War 2. A kids adventure novel… of course we’d set any of those aside if we got a phone call or an email from Steven Moffatt or Big Finish… was that touting for work blatant enough?
Iain McLaughlin, thank you.