The Dying Days was the first novel to feature the Eighth Doctor, and was the final book in Virgin’s long-running New Adventures series. The Infinity Doctors was published to mark Doctor Who’s thirty-fifth anniversary, and was unique in that it featured an unspecified incarnation of the Doctor. The Gallifrey Chronicles was the last in BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor Adventures range. What links these books, other than the fact that they’re major “event novels”, is their author – Lance Parkin.
“I think event books are important, simply because there are a lot of Doctor Who books,” Lance explains, as the first of two conversations with Unreality SF opens. “You want there to be books that stand out, and new readers try out. I don’t approach them any differently, though. The Eyeless isn’t an event novel, particularly.”
The Eyeless is, as up-to-date Doctor Who fans will already know, Lance Parkin’s first contribution to the New Series Adventures novel line. Due for release at the end of the year, it was announced online at the end of May, and Lance has kindly agreed to chat to Unreality SF about the novel.
Today, though, we’re discussing his previous work for the Doctor Who range. A fair number of his novels featured the aforementioned Eighth Doctor, with Lance both kicking off and wrapping up his print adventures.
”I’m not keen on Paul McGann’s portrayal of the character in the TV Movie,” he reveals. “I much preferred the one he talked about in interviews – one who’s more like Gary Oldman in Dracula – this ancient, vampiric thing pretending to be a young man to impress birds. I don’t want to take the credit for it, because I think a lot of people reached the same conclusions I did independently, but the Doctor in the Eighth Doctor Adventures was far more like the Doctor in The Dying Days than the Doctor in the TVM.”
Having introduced and sent off that incarnation of the Doctor in print, in The Dying Days and The Gallifrey Chronicles, I wonder whether Lance perhaps feels an affinity with the character; maybe some responsibility for the way he was handled by other contributors to the series. He admits that, in his opinion, “the range went off course with the war stuff” – an arc of novels concerning a Time War which eventually led to the destruction of Gallifrey – “not because it was a bad idea, but simply because it broke the golden rule: it put events beyond the protagonist’s sphere of influence. The Doctor could only ever react and go ‘ooh’ to the hints of the war, and the war was like the horizon – however fast you run towards it, you’re never going to get there. The war always seemed more interesting than whatever he was up to at the time. It was like having a range set in Stoke where the lead character keeps getting postcards from friends who are travelling to Bolivia and China and Mars and so on. You start to wonder why it’s not a series about them. It was a good idea that needed reigning in and thinking through a lot more.”
Later arcs included time shattering into numerous different timelines, subtly different from our own – what Lance describes as “universes exploding and timelines diverging and stuff” – and were sometimes met with mixed receptions from the readers.
Lance, however, likes the EDAs as a whole, believing them to be underrated. “There are some bad ones, yes, and – worse than that – there are some mediocre ones. I’d rather have a story that was trying to do something interesting and failed than one that just ticked things off a list of Things That Happen In Doctor Who. I think that particularly from The Burning to, say, Time Zero, they’re just about all as good as the NAs, which is about the highest praise I have for Doctor Who.
“In retrospect,” he continues, “the problem with destroying Gallifrey wasn’t destroying Gallifrey, it was that the Doctor wasn’t forced to live with the consequences. The new show does that so beautifully. Often, watching the telly series is a bit like peeking at the answers to a test I sat years ago… ‘oh, that’s how you do it’.”
Lance seems to have a lot of praise for the new series – “It’s had Kylie in it, for heaven’s sake. What more do people want, Kylie in a maid’s outfit and stilettos? At Christmas? With 16 million people watching?” – and believes the EDAs did a pretty good job of filling the void before the show returned.
“I’ve said in the past it’s like that game in [Radio 4 panel show] I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue where the panellist has to sing the tune when the music drops out. The books ended almost exactly where the TV series picked up. After 16 years, the books were within a gnat’s crochet of getting it perfectly right. I’d be happy to hold up, say, The Burning, The Turing Test, Father Time, [The Year of] Intelligent Tigers and Mad Dogs and Englishmen and say that we all very clearly loved Doctor Who and loved pushing it out of traditional tie-in territory into fun and scary places. They’re clever, well-written, imaginative and experimental novels.”
Equally, Lance is able to pinpoint possible reasons for issues with the series. “The problems, I think, all stemmed from a lack of early guidance. Alien Bodies came along like an oasis, it finally gave the range a sense that it was a range… then it took about two or three years for the BBC to catch up with the readers on that one. Right from the beginning, the BBC wanted a range with a big logo and standalone stories where anyone could pick any of them up in any order. And that’s absolutely brilliant – and what they have now – but the problem is that, by definition, you can’t have a ‘casual reader’ who’s buying 22 of something a year, particularly when the show it’s tying in to doesn’t actually exist any more. The only people buying them back then were older fans, and they were reading them all avidly and in order, and the job of the EDAs was to cater to those fans. Virgin understood who was reading them, the BBC started out with a very clear idea of who they wanted to read them, and that’s the difference.”
At the time they were being released, Lance was honest about aspects of the EDAs he disliked. For example, he expressed some criticism over the way companion Anji Kapoor was handled. “I liked Anji,” he clarifies, when I ask what the reasons for those opinions were, and whether they still stand now, “and felt she was a grounded, modern character and a lot like people I knew and liked. To me, she seemed very straightforward – a character who was ‘sensible’, but therefore a really good foil for the Doctor, someone who could fulfil the main role of a companion, which is to act like we’d act and ask the things we’d ask, like why they can’t carry cellphones and torches.
“Now, in amongst that, she got lumbered with a backstory involving a dead boyfriend, and that meant that anyone dealing with her character had to deal with that, which put a bit of a downer on things. The Indian background thing… when Colin Brake created her, I’m sure he thought nothing of it, but it’s the sort of thing writers love to play with, and so suddenly there’s more backstory, but it wasn’t terribly well co-ordinated, so she was of both Pakistani and Indian origin, she was from a liberal household that was also religious and strict and so on, and you could almost hear us writers all thinking ‘what does her background mean?’, which is a question with the best motives, but not one we would ever ask if she was Angie Cowper. The third problem is that we writers are all self-employed and basically sit around at home all day, and so for some of us ‘working in an office’ isn’t, y’know, what every normal person does, we picture it as this weird world where people sell their soul and have empty, futile aspirations to be Ally McBeal if they’re women and blokes in shaving gel ads if they’re men. It didn’t help that some of the writers saw Anji working specifically in financial services as somehow making her complicit in the deaths of every baby in the Third World since the dawn of time. As opposed to, say, not.”
Eventually, what was intended as a “perfectly ordinary identification figure” wound up with what Lance sees as unnecessary backstory, and what he amusingly describes as “authors seeing her as more alien and evil than the evil aliens.”
Anji’s fellow companion Fitz Kreiner was also a character that Lance had mixed feelings about. “I thought [he’d] just run his course by the time I got to do an EDA. He was okay, but I didn’t really see what the fuss was about. And he was 40 by then, but still dreaming of being a teen rock star. It didn’t seem all that healthy. I’d have killed him in Escape Velocity and kept Anji’s boyfriend as the companion. That would have solved all sorts of things, I think, and made for an interesting dynamic among the crew.”
Both Fitz and Anji appeared in The Gallifrey Chronicles, which was given the task of wrapping up the ongoing storylines of the EDAs. Gallifrey had to be restored in time for the Daleks to destroy it all over again, and the Doctor’s amnesia had to be resolved in order to make way for the Ninth Doctor that readers were acquainting themselves with onscreen.
However, whilst Gallifrey Chronicles paved the way for those things to happen, it didn’t actually show them directly as many fans had assumed it would. Combined with the fact that the book ended on a cliffhanger, rather than tying everything into a neat and tidy bow, this left a number of readers frustrated, wondering why the decision had been made.
“It seems absolutely bizarre to say it at this point,” Lance begins, happy to offer an explanation, “but the BBC were keeping their options open. If Doctor Who had bombed on telly, it would have been over and done in 13 weeks. So part of the brief was to leave things open just in case the EDAs needed to pick up just where they’d left off!”
In his opinion, does the end of the book still work as a satisfactory conclusion to the Eighth Doctor’s print run, if it leaves so much unsaid? “I love the ending of The Gallifrey Chronicles,” he says. “It’s not an open ending – we know what happens because we saw the result on telly. The Doctor gets his memory back, the Doctor restores Gallifrey, the Doctor wins… then at what must be his all time high, it’s all taken from him. And it’s this great big epic story full of mysteries and huge events far too grand to spell out in a book on or TV.
“A lot of people,” he goes on to acknowledge, “wanted a book where the Doctor was led to a big glowing ball of his memories and he grabbed it with both hands and went ‘Drahvins… Voord… Nimons… that bit in The Daemons where Bessie’s got a remote control… I remember it all!’ and I understand that impulse, but… well, we know he got his memories back. We don’t need to see and be spoon-fed everything.
“If, after 200 books, we left people wanting more, then it’s job done.”
Moving away from fiction, Lance is also known for Ahistory, a project which has woven the Whoniverse together cohesively, with frequent additions and updates over the years, incorporating as many episodes, audios, books, and other adventures as possible.
“I first cobbled together a timeline when I was 12 or something. I imagine plenty of the people reading this did something like it. It’s what fans do. When I was at university, I was lucky enough to be sharing a house with someone who just happened to edit a Doctor Who fanzine, Matrix, and I wrote a couple of articles about continuity, and they were popular so I expanded that into a whole book. The Chronology was almost like a railway timetable – a list of events with those production codes we all used to have memorised. I know some purists still prefer that version. Virgin, though, wanted something that, as Peter Darvill-Evans the commissioning editor put it, was ‘readable’, so I expanded it again for them, and added the books.
“Ten years on, and Mad Norwegian did a new edition. Now, I took on the job when there was a strong dollar and I thought it would take me about a month … then I realised there were about 500 new stories, then the new series was announced… then the dollar slumped. So, long story short, it took me two years. My fault, but it wasn’t much fun. The update that came out last year was a lot less painful, mainly because Lars Pearson, my publisher, did a lot of the work.
“It’s one of the things I’m known for. I’ll be perfectly honest and say that now I’m 36, I don’t feel the same way about it that I did when I was 18. I’m not sick to death of it or anything, or embarrassed about it, not at all. I just wouldn’t want it to be the first line of the obituary, or for people to think that I spend my entire life scribbling down a note every time someone mentions a date on Doctor Who. I was always self-aware about it, I’ve never said I’m unveiling some objective truth – it’s ‘a history’ of the Doctor Who universe. There’s some good faux-scholarship in there, I think. And it’s comprehensive enough that when people argue with the book, it’s almost always about stuff that’s in there.”
Even in an age where comprehensive information is readily available on the internet, Lance thinks the book serves an important purpose, and emphasises the fact that it collects everything – “nearly a thousand individual stories” – in one place. “Ahistory’s one of those books people tell me they use a lot, for all sorts of things. So it does a job.”
And now, with The Eyeless on the horizon, there’s yet another story to fit in to the good Doctor’s long history, and Lance reveals more about that book in the second half of our interview…
The Eyeless will be released by BBC Books in December 2008. The Gallifrey Chronicles was released by BBC Books in June 2005, and the latest edition of Ahistory was released by Mad Norwegian Press in December 2007.