Chances are, if you’re a science-fiction fan, you’ll have come across the work of James Swallow at some point. He’s contributed to the fiction universes of Stargate, Star Trek, Judge Dredd, Bernice Summerfield, and many others, with novels, short stories, computer game scripts, TV pitches, and magazine articles.
Today, he’s agreed to talk with Unreality about his upcoming Doctor Who projects, the first of which is a short story in the Short Trips anthology The Quality of Leadership. “My story is called Clean-up on Aisle Two,” James explains, “and it’s an oblique take on the idea of leadership, in a very mundane setting – a 24-hour supermarket. It’s a Seventh Doctor story, with no companions.”
With all of history and five decades of continuity as source material for a Doctor Who story, perhaps it might difficult to decide on which elements to use? Not so, James explains, telling us that he’s “been wanting to write a Seventh Doctor tale for a while. I like the late McCoy era Doctor a lot, and his ‘vibe’ just seemed to fit this story best. I’m not using any real historical characters, just ordinary, everyday people who have to face a challenge. This is a story about the Doctor doing one of the things he does best – acting as a catalyst for the inner strength in the people around him.”
James also visited the Doctor Who universe in December last year, with the novel Peacemaker, an adventure for the Tenth Doctor and Martha. The story is set in the Wild West, which seems an interesting choice given that the Doctor’s previous visit to that time and place (in the First Doctor TV serial The Gunfighters) isn’t exactly a fan-favourite. “I love Westerns!” James exclaims. “There’s a bit in Peacemaker where Martha Jones talks about watching Western movies on Sunday afternoons as a kid and that’s all me. Plus, I think that a lot of the themes of the Old West – lone heroes facing terrible odds, the challenges of a wild frontier, etc – all translate well to the world of Doctor Who. I guess in a way I wanted to ‘redeem’ the Wild West setting as a place for the Doctor to revisit…”
The new series of Doctor Who is definitely one of the biggest media successes in the UK in recent years. One would assume, therefore, that all the spin-off fiction such as Peacemaker is tightly controlled by the powers that be at BBC Wales. “Everything we do – not just the new Who stuff – goes through Cardiff for a once-over to make sure it doesn’t clash with what they have planned for the TV series,” James confirms. “For example, when I was doing Peacemaker I got some comments about story elements slightly similar to those that were to appear in the Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter; but these were minor, easy-to-fix things that didn’t impact the main storyline.”
Is the whole plot dictated by the editor at BBC Books, or are authors allowed a blank canvas? James explains that he “had a pretty free hand with Peacemaker. Justin Richards, the line editor, gave me only one brief, and that was to write a ‘pseudo-historical’ story – something set in the past with a sci-fi spin on it (in the manner of TV episodes like The Time Meddler, The King’s Demons, or Daleks in Manhattan). We talked about doing something in the Battle of Hastings or Feudal China, but in the end I went for the Old West, an era I really enjoy. As for the plotline itself, I was free to write the story I wanted.”
(Because I’m easily amused, I ask James for three random words and one sentence that apprear in Clean-up on Aisle Two, in tribute to the TV series teasers offered by Who showrunner Russell T Davies. He suggests “puke”, “master”, “Englishland” and “four hundred and seventy six thousand, nine hundred and twenty eight”, which I’m sure you’ll find just as enlightening as I did.)
James’s name is also attached to the second series of the audio drama Cyberman, produced by Big Finish Productions. The first four-episode run was written by Nicholas Briggs, so why has he moved on, and how did James get the gig? “I was as surprised as anyone, and I’m flattered that Nick felt he could entrust me with a series that he created,” he enthuses. “Nick’s the head honcho at Big Finish Productions now, and consequently that means he has a lot more on his plate and far less time to dedicate to writing. He asked me to come on to the Cyberman series because he felt that we have a similar writing style; it was important to him that Series 2 have the same ‘tone’ as Series 1.
“I was contracted to write a Seventh Doctor audio (Kingdom of Silver) which features the Cybermen, and initially Nick called me in to talk about putting some sort of crossover reference into my plotline, to touch on Cyberman 2; I thought maybe I might end up contributing some story ideas for C2, but to my delight, out of the blue Nick decided to give me the entire gig!”
Accepting the offer must have been an easy decision to make, given the popularity of the Cybermen and the exciting medium of an ongoing audio drama. “The Cybermen have always been my favourite Doctor Who monster, so I was more than happy to do it. I was also attracted by the slightly ‘darker’ nature of this series. Because it doesn’t have the Doctor in it, we can push the envelope a little.”
Beyond commissioning the series, I wonder how much involvement Nick Briggs had with the plays. “This follows on from the end of Series 1, so I inherited some characters and situations right off the bat,” he explains. “Nick had ideas about what he wanted to see, but I had a lot of room to create new characters and plotting to mesh things together.” Nick’s series of Cyberman was recorded live, and with details of the cast shrouded in secrecy. Now that he’s passed the project to James, will the same be true of Cyberman 2? “Nick says the ‘live’ recording was just his need to do something new and challenging. He feels he conquered that challenge and now wants to move on! I think that means that it was a bit of a crazy time.”
The Cybermen first appeared on Doctor Who in 1966, and have faced the Doctor on numerous occasions on screen, on audio, and in print. With such a vast history, the new series of Who chose to reset things by introducing new Cybers from an alternate universe – it must be a really tricky task to bring something new to the monsters after so long. “Very much so,” James agrees. “You can’t really change the nature of them, only try to show a different aspect… I think with both Kingdom of Silver and Cyberman 2, I’ve tried to address what the Cybermen are by the way they affect the lives of the normal people around them.”
Moving away from the Whoniverse, James has long been a familiar name to Star Trek fans, but has only recently been active in the world of Pocket Books’ Trek fiction. His latest project is the first novel in the Terok Nor miniseries, entitled Day of the Vipers. “In short, the resource-hungry Cardassians make their formal first contact with the Bajorans, stirring up a political and religious conflict that will ultimately lead to Bajor’s occupation,” he teases. “All of that is told as the backdrop to the personal stories of a group of characters from both worlds.”
This specific period of Trek history – James’s novel covers 2318 through 2328 – isn’t particularly well-documented, aside from a few vague references and a couple of strong Deep Space Nine flashback episodes. I ask James if it’s daunting to be adding something new to such a sparse area of the canon. “It’s a challenge to stitch together all the references – some of them conflicting ones! – and build a storyline that is compelling on a personal level as well as a historical one. Trek history says that the Cardassians invaded and occupied Bajor for half a century, but how did that actually happen? Why did Bajor let the Cardassians roll in and take over? That’s what Day of the Vipers is about, and its seen from the point of view of a handful of characters, some of them new, some of them familiar. Over this ten-year span of time, we see Bajor slip toward a terrible fate as factions in the church, the government and just ordinary people get caught up in the prelude to the occupation.
“I really enjoyed coming up with views of Cardassian and Bajoran society pre-occupation, showing what they were like before their two cultures collided. I also tackled one of the key things in Trek history that never made sense to me: why was it that the Federation stood by and did nothing when the Cardassians invaded Bajor?”
Teasers online have described James’s book as a “prelude” to the following two novels by S.D. Perry and Britta Dennison. “I hope it’s a lot more than just a curtain-raiser; while Stephani and Britta’s novels will tackle the occupation years themselves, I’ve worked to come up with a compelling and real progression for the Cardassian-Bajoran relationship. It’s a prelude in as much as it sets the foundations for the coming upheavals, but it’s also a story that shows how people are (and will be) changed by the need to survive in a hostile universe. One of the key characters in the book is Skrain Dukat, who we first meet as a driven young starship officer; I wanted to show how a person like him can start down the road toward becoming the madman he is at the end of Deep Space Nine‘s final season.”
James also has a hand in the upcoming series of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis audio adventures, due for release later this year from the aforementioned Big Finish Productions. “They’re kind of a halfway house between a talking book and a full-cast audio drama,” he explains, “similar in format of Big Finish’s Doctor Who: Companion Chronicles discs. Basically, we have two actors – one lead voice, one supporting voice – and the story is ‘told’ to you by the lead.”
In the first series of CDs, James has written one SG-1 and one SGA adventure. “Shell Game is set in Season Ten of Stargate SG-1; it’s a Vala Mal Doran story, featuring Daniel Jackson. The plot involves Vala’s past coming back to bite her in the backside, when a crime she once committed is revealed to have a very serious consequence. Zero Point is set during Season Four of Stargate Atlantis; it’s a Radek Zelenka story, featuring a new character in the supporting role. The plot for this one has an alien force threatening to destroy everyone on Atlantis, and only Zelenka and the crew of the starship Apollo can stop it.
“Shell Game stars Claudia Black and Michael Shanks, while Zero Point stars David Nykl. Also reprising their roles from SG-1 and Atlantis are Christopher Judge, Paul McGillion, Torri Higginson, and Teryl Rothery. We’re prepping the next ‘season’ of stories now, and we hope to have more Stargate actors for those.”
James also reveals that he’s “already working on my next script, an SG-1 story called First Prime. You can probably guess who’s going to be the lead character in that…”.
As usual, we wind up by asking James about other upcoming stories. “I’ve been doing some work on videogame projects and more scriptwriting for the next season of the Blake’s 7 Audio Adventures series,” he obliges. “Book-wise, as well as Day of the Vipers I also have fiction appearing in the Star Trek: Mirror Universe anthology Shards and Shadows, and Infinity’s Prism (part of the Star Trek alternate-history series Myriad Universe); and over in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, this year will see the release of The Blood Angels Omnibus (a collected edition of two earlier novels) and a new Blood Angels book, Red Fury. I try to keep busy…!”
Peacemaker was released by BBC Books in December 2007. The Quality of Leadership and Cyberman 2 will be released by Big Finish Productions in May 2008 and December 2009 respectively, and Day of the Vipers will be released by Pocket Books in April 2008.