❉ Geek chat with Simon Guerrier.
Simon Guerrier is co-author of The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who (2015) and Whographica (2016) for BBC Books, and has written countless Doctor Who books, comics, audio plays and documentaries.
He’s also the latest writer for Obverse Books’ Black Archive series, which puts individual Doctor Who serials under the microscope, in the fashion of the BFI’s Classics or Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series.
We spoke to Simon Guerrier about his work so far, and ‘Black Archive: The Evil of the Daleks’, out now from Obverse Books.
The Evil of the Daleks (1967) is an epic, strange and eerie conclusion to Doctor Who’s fourth series, originally commissioned to kill off the Daleks for good. This Black Archive title explores how The Evil of the Daleks developed from commission to broadcast 50 years ago – and beyond. Painstaking research and new interviews with many of those involved in the production shed fresh light on the story, its characters and its mix of science and history.
Hello, Simon. You contributed numerous short stories to Big Finish’s ‘Short Trips’ anthology range towards the tail-end of Doctor Who’s “wilderness years”, is it fair to say that Big Finish was a nurturing playground for up and coming writers learning their craft such as yourself?
It definitely was for me. Big Finish has been extraordinarily supportive since I started working for them back in 2002. But it wasn’t only them. In those long ago days before Doctor Who was back on TV, you didn’t need an agent – on any experience at all – to pitch Doctor Who novels to BBC Books. So I did, and had a series of rejections from editors Jac Rayner and Justin Richards, offering advice and encouragement. That was important to learning enough craft – that is, to know what rubbish to cut – to ever get paid for my writing. And then Jac was editing the first ‘Short Trips’ book for Big Finish and thought of me. I’d tried pitching audio stuff to Big Finish before that but never really got anywhere – because I wasn’t sending in anything good. So it was the short stories that then led to the audios.
You also edited a number of Doctor Who, Benny Summerfield and Dalek Empire anthologies for Big Finish. How different are the disciplines of writing and editing, and did editing other writers’ work help you as a writer?
A lot of writing is editing anyway, beavering away to make the words less crap. The main thing is collaboration: when you’re writing, you’re working with an editor, and when you’re an editor you’re working with a writer. In both cases, there’s an art to how you raise concerns about something you’re not happy with, and how that then gets resolved. It was illuminating to see that from the other side.
So yes, I think I learned a lot – as much about how not to treat editors! It’s also interesting to see other writers’ blind spots: there are brilliant, brilliant writers who have no sense of punctuation, or there was a book I worked on – not for Doctor Who – where the author used “that” and “than” interchangeably. But I think you learn by trying different things. The editing was helpful, but so were the years I did as a copy writer for consumer magazines, and the other odd writing jobs I’ve done.
You’ve also written many audio dramas for Big Finish; how does writing a script for audio compare to writing text fiction?
There’s less of it, for one thing. You can use sound effects instead of paragraphs of description, and make the listener do some of the work. I think writing audio has also improved my prose. On audio I’m continually thinking, “That’s three paragraphs without a sound effect – I should put something in to keep it audibly interesting.” Or “That character hasn’t spoken more than two lines, I need to justify them being in this scene or the actor will be bored.” And that kind of thing filters back, so I’m looking at my prose thinking, “How can I make this do more?”
More recently, you’ve co-written a number of factual Doctor Who spin-offs for BBC Books, the most recent being Whographica with journalist Steve O’Brien and designer Ben Morris. Can you tell us a little about those books and what it’s been like immersing yourself into the fictional universe of Who mythology and looking at it from different angles?
Whographica is a bright, daft book of Doctor Who infographics and was Steve’s idea. We had a really good time working it all out with Ben, but blimey it was a lot of work. Since then, I’ve worked with Ben again and also Christel Dee on a book of Doctor Who Paper Dolls out this summer, which involved researching costumes from the series. And I’ve got a couple of other non-fiction titles out later this year but they’ve not been formally announced yet. Bother.
Whether you’re writing new Doctor Who fiction or factual books, you don’t just want to do something that’s been done before, so you’re continually looking for angles or perspectives that haven’t been covered. Whographica was a real challenge because Steve and I agreed early on, having looked at lots of other books of infographics, that we wanted to put as few words as possible on any page. But it’s fun. I basically spend a lot of time watching DVDs, leafing through Doctor Who Magazine and various books, trying to come up with new stuff, and following daft threads.
Your latest book is The Evil of the Daleks, part of Obverse Books’ ongoing series of monographs. What inspired you to pitch for the Black Archive, and why did you choose this particular story?
Two things made me want to do it. First, for all the years I’d worked on Doctor Who things, I’d never been to the BBC’s Written Archives Centre in Caversham. I’d devotedly followed Doctor Who Magazine’s features in the 1990s on the early days of the series, all culled from those archives. And I knew people who’d been there and unearthed amazing detail. But I’d never been able to justify a trip myself – I needed a project to hang it on. And then I read James Cooray Smith’s Black Archive book on The Massacre, which is diligently researched and full of brilliant, sometimes outrageous commentary. So I thought it was just the thing to use an excuse for a trip. Then it was a matter of contacting the editors and choosing which story I’d do.
I wanted a story with a mix of science and history, because those are areas I like to explore. I wanted a story that divided opinion, and Graham Kibble-White had just written a damning review of The Evil of the Daleks for Doctor Who Magazine. And speaking to Jim about The Massacre, it seemed like a missing story would be less familiar to most readers, so a better chance of offering them something new.
Infamously, The Evil of the Daleks is one of the many classic Doctor Who serials wiped by the BBC, with only one episode extant, although it can be experienced as an audio soundtrack (remastered from off-air recordings), a novelisation, and a fan-made reconstruction. One of the themes of your Black Archive is how these artefacts can only offer a flavour or an interpretation of the serial as it was produced and broadcast, and you go on to pick through what the camera scripts, BBC production files and memos etc. also tell us about what cannot be ‘seen’ – and how divergent these many sources are. Is it fair to say the issues these factors raise about authorship and authenticity were a key factor in exploring a ‘lost’ story?
Well, Jim covered some of this in his book on The Massacre. I hadn’t really planned to cover the subject when I started – I didn’t know where I was going to go, to be honest. Then when I started thinking about the issue of authenticity that’s at the heart of the story – for example, the antiques that are genuine but also brand new – it seemed right to consider the authenticity of the story itself. And whenever I approached anyone with a research request, I had to explain what I was doing: “The Evil of the Daleks is a seven-episode Doctor Who story that no longer exists and I’ve never seen, but…”
The book draws upon numerous sources for reference, from issues of DWM and DWB to the vast files of production paperwork in the BBC Written Archives Centre – and I note that you dedicated this book to Doctor Who researcher Andrew Pixley, who is no stranger to these sources. What was it like undertaking this kind of archive TV archaeology, and what were the most surprising finds or insights it yielded during your research?
Yes, I did a lot of digging. The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain kindly let me go through their archives as David Whitaker was their chair at the time he wrote The Evil of the Daleks. That yielded some fascinating stuff that will appear in Doctor Who Magazine later this year but didn’t quite fit the book. I also visited Derby Playhouse and went through its archives because of the connection to Marius Goring. And I went through a bunch of newspaper archives, most notably – because it proved so useful – the Stage.
As I said, I didn’t know when I started what I wanted to cover, so it was just following various leads. And that was really satisfying to do – turning stuff up, not quite knowing what to expect – and not normally the kind of investigation my work calls for. But I’ve always been a fan of that kind of research, whether by Andrew, or Marcus Hearn, or the great triumvirate of Howe, Stammers, Walker. There had also been a healthy rivalry between the teams of us making documentaries for the DVDs to turn up new facts.
But Andrew’s guided me a lot over the years, suggesting places to look for answers, sharing snippets of his own research, and generally just being very encouraging. I owe him a terrific debt. So that’s why the book is for him.
One aspect of your Black Archive that interested me was where you address the story’s Swinging London and Victorian England settings, at a time when the series itself was becoming more reflective of the socio-cultural climate of ’60s Britain.
In terms of reflecting the zeitgeist Dr Who has often veered between slipstream and mainstream – was Evil one of those moments in pop culture where everything just aligned, or something more profound?
Well, it’s more than an accident because – as you say – the production team at the time were actively trying to make a programme the audience would find relevant. They were consciously trying to tap the zeitgeist. But then I don’t know how any TV programme – or book or whatever – can not reflect the time in which it’s made. That said, I’m not sure how much The Evil of the Daleks is really that like Sgt. Pepper – or The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was also written at the same time and I discuss. What I tried to address were specific moments of context or overlap that lend new perspective to the story. For example, I compare the music to that of the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, which also came out at the same time. But the point is they’re almost doing opposite things – for all they share at least one musician.
Finally, can you tell our readers what you are currently working on and what your next projects are?
I’ve got a whole bunch of things out from Big Finish later in the year, including my first audio for Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. I’ve also got the Paper Dolls book and the others I can’t talk about. And I’ve got some pitches in to make more radio documentaries, and I’m working on some fun stuff I would be slightly killed if I mentioned ahead of time. But my main project is to cut down the amount by which I am late on everything.
❉ The Black Archive 11. Evil of the Daleks by Simon Guerrier is out now from Obverse Books and can be ordered here: http://obversebooks.co.uk/product/11-evil-of-the-daleks/