Eddie Robson is one of those writers who seems to have come from nowhere. In 2006, with five Doctor Who short story credits to his name, his audio play Memory Lane was released to great acclaim. It was followed by four more audio releases in 2007, and another four in 2008, including such fan-favourites as Human Resources, The Condemned, and Grand Theft Cosmos. Since Memory Lane, Eddie’s also had three more Short Trips tales published, and is now the producer of the Bernice Summerfield range which he’s contributed to since 2000.
“Pretty much,” he replies, when Unreality SF asks if Eddie has always wanted to be a writer, “ever since I formed any serious ideas about what I wanted to do. When I was very young I wanted to be an architect, but that was just because I really loved playing with Lego. As a teenager I scribbled lots of ideas and beginnings of stories, but I started writing seriously at university.”
When did he discover Doctor Who? “The first bit of the show I can definitely remember is Pertwee driving Bessie in The Five Doctors, and I remember seeing the cliffhanger of Trial of a Time Lord Part Ten, but I didn’t watch it back then. I’ve no idea why. Generally my family tended towards the BBC for kids’ programmes, but when it came to Saturday teatimes we watched Robin of Sherwood or The A-Team. I started watching Doctor Who properly with Delta and the Bannermen Part Two, when I was eight years old. That’s why I get annoyed when I see that lazy cliche being spouted in the media that the show had lost touch with the kids by that stage. Lots of kids at my school watched it, and I’d only just started!”
It was while he was at university that Eddie first combined his love of Doctor Who and his flair for the written word. “I pitched a couple of novels to BBC Books,” he explains, “and although they never made the grade, Jac Rayner saw them on the way through the system and was interested in giving me a shot at a Short Trip” – referring to the series of Doctor Who short-story anthologies, which were originally published by the BBC. “I wrote the story, sent it over, and lined it up for a future volume – but then the BBC stopped doing the Short Trips. When Big Finish got the Short Trips licence a couple of years later, Jac remembered the story and ran it in the second volume.
“As for the audios, I’d asked Gary [Russell, former Big Finish producer] if there were any openings to pitch a few times, and there hadn’t been. Then, just when I’d basically given up, he said there might be an opening after all and could I send him an idea. And that was Memory Lane.”
Across both mediums, Eddie’s Doctor Who work has been met with unprecedented acclaim from readers and listeners, and his name is frequently cited as one of the best in the Big Finish bunch. “I have had some good reviews and comments from the audience,” he acknowledges, “but I’ve had some pretty bad ones as well. I like reading reviews – I know some people dodge reviews at all costs, but I’m very interested to hear what people think, and it’s one of the benefits of something like Doctor Who that you do get feedback from the audience.” However, Eddie doesn’t feel that audience feedback has affected the way he writes. “Obviously you don’t want to get complacent, but I tend to feel the opposite – every time I hand in a script I worry it’s not as good as the last one and people will say I’ve gone rubbish. I was genuinely surprised by the reaction to The Condemned, for example. But on the other hand, I do have Nick [Briggs, executive producer] and Alan [Barnes, script editor] who’d tell me if they thought something could be better. They don’t beat about the bush, which I really appreciate.”
One of Eddie’s most recent Doctor Who plays was the long-awaited Masters of War (“[that] was a treat,” he grins, “getting to write for David Warner’s Doctor and the legend that is Nicholas Courtney!”), part of the popular Unbound series which takes a “what if?” look at the Whoniverse. “Gary had a hook in mind, which was to use the notion Terry Nation had considered for the first Dalek story but abandoned – that a third party had started the Thal-Dalek war. He also floated the idea that I could make it the Doctor’s first meeting with the Daleks, which we could have done as it’s an Unbound, but not only did I feel we should stick with the implication that the Warner Doctor has the same experiences as the first two TV Doctors, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do with the Daleks that would fundamentally require them to be reintroduced to the audience. In fact, what I decided to do with them needed the Doctor to have encountered them before.”
In addition to his Unbound adventure, Eddie penned two of the Sixth Doctor’s successful ongoing adventures with Charley Pollard, The Condemned and The Raincloud Man. “There’s quite a lot of communication,” he explains, discussing the way in which the continuing arcs are tackled. “When we were doing the first Eight/Lucie series we had a Yahoo!Group for the writers to discuss what we were doing, because we were all writing simultaneously. With the Six/Charley arc, that was plotted out in advance – I was given a couple of beats to hit in The Condemned and before I started writing I got a document containing the other storylines in the arc (although since then Nick and Alan decided to squeeze in a couple more stories).”
Both of Eddie’s Six/Charley tales also featured guest star Anna Hope, whose performance as DI Menzies was especially well-received, and has been singled out as a potential companion by eager listeners. “I didn’t have her in mind as a returning character when writing,” he reveals, referring to The Condemned, “although she did become a bit of a surrogate companion for the Doctor – and I think enthusiasm for bringing her back did build when we heard how good Anna was in the part. I’ve no idea whether she could be a companion or not though!”
Unreality SF wonders whether it’s easier to write for a character like Menzies when you already know which actor will be playing the part, as was the case for The Raincloud Man. “It is easier, yes,” he agrees. “I wrote Human Resources and Phobos without knowing who was going to play Lucie – all the writers on that season were writing at the same time, so we were feeling our way towards this new character. I ended up writing her as quite dry, irreverent and colloquial, so I was very pleased to hear they’d cast Sheridan because I immediately knew that would work.
“I like to fix a character’s voice in my head,” he continues. “Often I will mentally cast the parts, it’s how I distinguish the voices from each other whilst writing, to stop them all from sounding the same – so it is helpful to know who’s going to be playing a part, because it saves me having to choose one myself. When you don’t know who you’re writing for, they never sound how they do in your head. That’s just inevitable – if you expect them to sound like that in the finished play, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. There’s so much potential variation in how any part could be cast and played.”
Have any portrayals been markedly different from what Eddie had imagined? “I can’t think of any major departures, except a few cases where I’ve thought of a voice in one accent and they’ve been cast differently – Maxine in The Condemned was written as Mancunian, for instance, but Nick Briggs found Sara De Freitas who was bang-on right for the part but had a London accent. Rather than ask her to play Mancunian, we stuck in a line about how the character was a Londoner who’d moved up there.”
How much specific direction is given to writers with regards to the content of a mid-arc story? “It varies,” Eddie responds. “Often it depends what the story’s position is in the arc. Sometimes it’s just a beat or two that needs to be hit, sometimes I get quite a lot of things to include. Often we work those things out at the storyline stage – Human Resources was originally submitted as a one-parter, but when BF assembled the season they saw a way to incorporate the season storyline into it and asked me to expand it to two parts.”
Human Resources was something of an “event story” – as well as being a double-length season finale, it saw the return of the Cybermen, and wrapped up Lucie’s ongoing storylines from the previous six tales. Does such a coveted slot come with more pressure than a mid-season story like Phobos, which was comparatively self-contained? “Yeah, I think anyone would feel a bit more pressure,” Eddie nods. “It’s not like I’d ever approach a mid-season episode thinking ‘Oh, this episode doesn’t matter as much, no need to try as hard’, but you know that people are going to focus on a finale a bit more than a mid-season episode and that you’ve got to deliver on stuff other writers have worked hard to set up for you. There’s also the fact that you often have to incorporate elements that have been given to you but I don’t mind that, it’s often nice to have something to work with than staring at a blank page trying to think of an idea. I was given the Metebelis Spiders for this year’s finale, for instance.”
Although the format for the Eighth Doctor and Lucie’s adventures is due to change for their third season together, their stories to date have been 50 minutes long, rather than the traditional 100 minutes divided into four shorter episodes. They’ve also been broadcast on digital radio station BBC7. The differences in structure and medium haven’t changed Eddie’s approach as a writer, however. “I bear in mind that, if something’s going to be broadcast on the radio, ideally you want to grab people quite quickly in case they switch over,” he says. “With the ones that are only on CD, you can afford to be a bit more slow-burning – not that you want to waste the listener’s time, but you can maybe afford to be a bit more subtle. To be honest though, I mostly just follow what the story seems to demand.”
As well as furthering Charley Pollard and Lucie Miller’s continuing storylines, Eddie has tackled adventures of a solo Doctor, with I.D. and Urgent Calls. “I was surprised with I.D. just how fast I fell into the usual pattern of Doctor/companion writing,” he admits. “Claudia became a surrogate companion in no time at all. I think that’s partly just the nature of Doctor Who‘s format, it’s not just because TV shows tend to have more than one regular character for the audience to latch onto, it’s become built into the character of the Doctor. It’s also because Doctor Who is usually parallel-plotted, there are usually two or three threads running simultaneously, and if the Doctor is handling one of those, you need one or two other characters to be the focal point of the other(s). You might choose to keep the companion(s) with the Doctor and cut away to guest characters, but the companions give you options.
“The companion’s role in that regard becomes more obvious on audio, I think, because it can be jarring to cut from, for example, a scene featuring some characters in one room to the same characters in another room, because you don’t have any visual cues to indicate the cut, the passage of time or the change of location. It’s perfectly possible to make those transitions work, but it’s easier to cut away to another scene in a different plot thread, however briefly. Then, when you return to the original thread, the audience is prepared for the fact that things may have changed whilst they’ve been away.
“On a more basic level, on audio you also need to have someone for the Doctor to talk to, so you end up sticking someone with him anyway, whether that’s the companion or someone else. I split up the Doctor and Charley almost immediately in The Condemned, then gave him Menzies to talk to for the rest of the play. What was quite nice in I.D. is that I could do something similar to what they’ve done with the companionless specials on TV, where you can take the one-off companion on a self-contained journey.”
Currently, Eddie is taking former novel companion Bernice Summerfield on her own journey, overseeing the ongoing series of audio and print adventures starring Lisa Bowerman. “[My job involves] commissioning and editing the scripts, and overseeing post-production,” he explains. “On my first season I was also organising the actual recording days, but this year we decided to take an approach whereby one director – John Ainsworth – would direct all four plays, and he’s been taking care of studio and actor bookings. He’ll also be credited as executive producer on this season, as BF decided that it would be useful for me to have someone more experienced to go to if any difficulties arose.”
For those not familiar with Benny’s character and background, what does the series involve? “At the moment it’s Bernice – space archaeologist of the twenty-seventh century – and her son Peter wandering the galaxy trying to make ends meet. They had to leave home because things were unstable there – but Bernice is increasingly aware that she’ll have to return to resolve matters there sooner or later. The stories vary quite a bit – there’s a lot of humour, emotional strife and unearthing of ancient evils. I think there’s a Doctor Whoish spirit about them, apart from the fact that Bernice can’t just nip off afterwards in the TARDIS – she has to live with the consequences of her actions.”
Other than the adventures of Bernice and the good Doctor, Eddie’s work will be turning up in a number of places in 2009. “I’m working quite a bit on comedy material for Radio 4,” he reveals. “I’ve contributed to a new show called Broken Arts and in the last couple of months I’ve had sketches on Recorded For Training Purposes and Play and Record. I’ve also written a children’s illustrated adaptation of Dracula, with interactive bits, that’s out this year, and I’ve contributed to a book of essays about war movies which should also be out soon.”
Masters of War and The Raincloud Man were released by Big Finish Productions in December 2008. Bernice Summerfield Season 10 begins in June 2009.