Wednesday, July 19, 2006

First Born - the conception

I first landed on planet Big Finish in May 2005, thanks to the wondrous Conrad ‘C’rizz’ Westmaas who had suggested me for the equally wondrous Joe Lidster’s ‘Terra Firma’. Feet – ground – literally – did – not – touch. Playing a Doctor Who assistant. Travelling with Paul McGann. Mind control by Daleks. Then death. Then being asked by Ian Farrington to write my first short story for Short Trips. Cor. Having only written scripts before, this was also to be my first professional venture into prose. Yikes.

I’ve had big fun at BF in the last year – playing evil rabbits, getting ripped apart by Cybermen, blowing up Paris, meeting Philip Olivier (mmm…) and Sophie Aldred (ahhh…) – but for me, the Centenarian project has been the biggest challenge and the most rewarding so far. Ian’s concept for the book was genius. Amongst the human story of one man’s entire life there was safe space for those nervous of writing sci-fi and of getting Doctor Who WRONG. Like ME. So I asked if I could have the year where the guy’s son was born, thinking I’d concentrate on the family birth business and bypass all the hard stuff. And of course I ended up writing a full on AI sci-fi story where the Doctor, Tegan and Adric carry the entire plot. See how a girl on a strange planet can get carried away…

I had to write for Tegan and Adric. Tegan was the girl I wanted to be in the 80s – she had the best earrings and the best scowl. Unfortunately at school I was better at maths than fashion so always had more in common with the bowl-headed one. A maths mind fascinates me – especially as I was left stranded at A’ level mourning the sudden loss of my intelligence. Adric always got a lot of flak – here was my chance to make him a SUPERBEING MOO HA HAAA!

Of course this choice of companions meant I was writing a 5th Doctor story and it turned out to be harder than I thought. I don’t know why, as Davison was my Doctor growing up, but for some reason Patrick Troughton kept visiting my mind and minxing around and I was hearing his voice instead. I was sure people would read it on the page as being him and find me out. So I got my hands on every 5th Doctor DVD and BF audio I could and just Davisoned out and gradually, I started to hear his voice while I was writing. I swear it makes a difference! If you read carefully, you can hear the floppy hair and wilting celery…?!

The original concept for ‘First Born’ changed a great deal between drafts. Fortunately, Joe Lidster founded a web-forum for the Centenarian writers called The Old Bloke so we could swap ideas from the start and things like embarrassing plot holes, violence in the TARDIS and over-using the sonic screwdriver were weeded out swiftly. I did at one time have Edward Grainger’s baby born in the TARDIS but it was decided that it was best to get that stuff out the way before the story started. TARDIS as maternity ward is a no go! As a result of this change, Nyssa’s role was largely reduced (oh yes, she was in it too – I thought she might conjure up some emotion if she had to deliver a child??!) but it was necessary to reduce the number of perspectives going on in the story. It also made my favourite maths boy more central to the plot.

The Short Trips books have a house style which involves the story always being told from someone’s perspective. You can choose to write from only one POV but changing scenes can get tricky. It’s a great excuse to invent new characters though - whose viewpoint you wouldn’t normally share. I found it harder in the group scenes in the TARDIS when I had to cater for 4 characters and an alien identity. I’m used to writing scripts where action scenes are shared and the focus can switch between protagonists. This tripped me up at first but it was fun telling the story from the AI perspective – I had to work harder to find a new language of expression that sounded advanced but was still readable.

Then of course, I was starting to read other Centenarian stories and the bar kept rising. Seriously – these guys are good. It was both supportive and daunting to be surrounded by such expert knowledge – not just the Doctor Who stuff but in the whole sci-fi & short story medium. It was a prose master class and has already led to other writing work for me – who knows what monstrous deformed trees will now sprout from the Farrington acorn!!!

The expansion of Edward Grainger’s world has been incredible – with all of us pitching character names, occupations, childhood experiences to build his life from scratch. As you read each original idea – you are anchored by two strands – the life of two men woven together in ever more ingenious ways. I feel honoured to be amongst this bunch of people on such a unique project. I shall miss Edward Grainger but he’s given me one of the coolest jobs I’ve had and a lot of generous and talented mates. Long live the Old Bloke!

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