Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hell on Earth

"Sorry, you’re getting quite a pivotal story!" So said Ian when he sent me details of his next Short Trips collection, The Centenarian. He wasn't kidding. Set in 1932, story five (as it was then) was to be the turning point in Edward's life, the point at which the spoiled rich kid becomes a man with a career and a purpose. So, no pressure then.

While looking up 1932 on the net (I could call this researching, but who am I kidding?) I fell upon a subject that I'd heard of but knew terribly little about. I'm no history expert, but when I started reading about one of the most horrifying events of the 20th century, I was shocked. How come I wasn't taught this in school?

Unit 731 was one of many Japanese facilities set up to research biological warfare before and during World War II. Westerners, Chinese, Mongolian and Russian prisoners were experimented on in the most cruel and dehumanizing ways. The depth of depravity and the disregard for human life was truly shocking.

I knew I had the setting for my story. I also I knew it was time to hit the library.

Daniel Barenblatt's A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program is a compelling book but hardly an easy read. The graphic descriptions of the horrors inflicted on innocent people in the name of science sent me into a funk for days. The revelations concerning what happened when the Americans liberated these units at the end of the war and the fate of the perpetrators of these terrible crimes depressed me even more.

This was a difficult time for me. Reading in detail about the true evil humans are capable of inflicting on each other was disturbing to say the least, and I have to thank my wife, Jennifer, for talking through with me what I was discovering.

But wait a sec, this is a Short Trips story. What was I thinking setting a Doctor Who tale in the middle of a real human tragedy of massive proportions? Surely that's like landing the TARDIS in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre on the morning of September 11th. Hardly appropriate subject matter for tie-in fiction to a family show.

Well, yes and no. I am a firm believer that the concept of Doctor Who is almost limitless in where it can go and what it can do. I love the programme for many things, but its scope is probably the strongest draw for me. I had made up my mind: the Doctor would take Edward Grainger to Unit 731. All credit to Ian for going along with the idea. I'm sure he could only imagine what unpublishable horror story he was going to receive.

So now I had a couple of problems. Firstly, Unit 731 didn't exist in 1932, and secondly, how was I going to set a story in this place and keep it suitable for a family audience? How could I depict such horror and yet not trivialise the fate of thousands of people.

The answer to these two questions was one and the same. 1932 saw the genesis of the Japanese biological warfare program. It was in this year that the precursor to Unit 731 was built, the Zhongma Fortress. In this huge, castle-like facility, the experimentation began, but not on the same scale as would follow for years afterward.

It helped that I was given the seventh Doctor to work with. Thanks to years of New Adventures, fans are used to reading about this incarnation dealing with weightier subjects than the TV series could usually depict. This was one Doctor well versed with situations of such gravity.

This was by far the toughest story I have ever tackled; the images from my research haunt me still. By necessity I was only able to scratch the surface of these terrible crimes but I hope it will prompt those readers who have only the vaguest idea of what went on at Unit 731 to find out more.

Edward is about to get the shock of his life. Ian had asked me to grow him up and give him purpose. I took him to Hell on Earth.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Old Blog

People often ask us ‘How do you two write together? ASB

Well this is one way of doing it. Actually the first question they ask us tends to be ‘Where’s James/Andrew?’ since we never seem to both be able to be in the same place at the same time. There really are two of us you know. Honest. JP

So far, for us, the process seems to have differed slightly every time. In the case of ‘Old Boys’, Ian Farrington contacted us about doing a 6th Doctor story, set in the 80s, for ‘The Centenarian’ and we submitted a few ideas. ASB

I honestly can’t remember what the other two ideas were. But in general Andrew is the ideas man, in fact he’s irritatingly good at them. JP

Ian liked ‘Old Boys’, a short story written in letter form that featured three shorter stories – we like to give ourselves work! I came up with the basic ideas and mapped out the detailed storyline. ASB

Ian had asked if we’d include a loose technology theme to run throughout. ASB

In fact it was more of a ‘dangers of technology’ theme. JP

The first thing I thought of was computers. That in turn suggested the companion! The occupational background of the friends of the recurring character, Edward Grainger, suggested the setting. ASB

We also needed the meal as a framing device. In addition this was to be the story in which Edward began to work out who The Doctor was, or at least began to see the recurring pattern of their encounters. JP

For the plot, I drew on an old idea I’d had some years ago for a Virgin Books, Troughton era novel proposal set in the 1930s that James and I never got round to finishing or sending ( I think?). ASB

It probably fell-foul of the ending of Virgin’s licence. I certainly recall the idea but I can’t remember, or be bothered to look up, to see, if we ever submitted it. JP

This, then, became the basis for the first of the shorter stories, which has the mini-title ‘Games Without Frontiers’ (for those interested in such things). It was the often worn garb of another 6th Doctor era companion that sparked the idea for the second shorter story. Working out to lose weight was all the rage in the eighties. And Jane Fonda was queen! Her hit video partly inspired the plot. We gave this story the mini-title, ‘Tummy Trouble’. ASB

Andrew being the expert on fitness videos of course. JP

The final shorter story in the trilogy, mini-titled ‘Friendly Fire’, linked into the overall arcing plot of our main short story as a whole. Again, inspired by the particular companion, I came up with a ‘history’ themed piece set on an ocean liner. We also had a little knowledge of what was to happen in the following short story and so worked the plot to help set up what was to come. I sent this storyline to James, intending to start writing a version myself. ASB

When I got the plot outline I decided to plough straight into writing it – I thought I should probably do a bit of work at this stage since Andrew seemed to have been doing all the running up to that point. In fact, in general, whilst Andrew’s strength lies in plots and ideas, mine lies in prose and dialogue. So I wrote the first draft and sent it back. JP

It was so good, I abandoned doing a draft of my own and just added plot elements that I felt were missing or hadn’t been covered properly and the odd line or lines here and there to it. ASB

Blush. JP

We kicked this draft backwards and forwards between us a few times, tweaking and editing each others re-writes until we were just debating over certain words! ASB

In fact that’s generally how we work – one of us writes the initial draft and then we chuck it back and forth – phoning each other in between to discuss (with varying degrees of heat) the changes we have made. In fact it’s a very productive process because it means we each have to justify what we have done if the other one objects to it. In effect we act as each other’s editors. JP

Once this was settled we sent the final draft back to Ian. Ian came back to us with only a few comments and changes. The main problem was that the plot of ‘Friendly Fire’, rather than act as a set up to the next story, clashed with it. We needed to change the plot and ‘beef it up a bit’. ASB

In fact we had both always agreed that the third segment was by far the weakest of them and being forced to completely rethink it was by far the best thing that could have happened to it. JP

Hair pulling time! ASB

I wish you wouldn’t do that – it really hurts. JP

Keeping the ocean liner setting and some of the original story elements, I came up with an alternative that just about ticked the boxes which I emailed to James. ASB

And it did indeed do everything Ian had asked but I felt that it read too much as though we were ticking boxes. So I went for a long walk. Which was lovely. After which I sat and thought about the story and came up with another alternative. JP

A couple of days later I received his new draft. He’d come up with a different and much better idea for the shorter story that gave us a much stronger ending. Nothing needed to be changed and so we returned it to Ian, sat back and relaxed! ASB

Blush (again). JP

And that’s how these two people write together. This time, at least. ASB

Saturday, August 05, 2006

FINDING THE LOST

Having originally submitted ideas for a Big Finish Audio CD in 2003, I was first contacted by Ian Farrington in the fall of 2004. While passing on the audio CD ideas, he wondered if I'd be willing to participate in a short story anthology. I said 'Yes!' and... Five months later Ian wrote back and told me some of the broad strokes of 'The Centenarian' concept.

Now, I actually have a long history of writing little known Doctor Who stories. In the mid-1980's I decided to go from narrative to script format and at that time there was only one successful Sci-Fi show actively in production: 'Doctor Who.' Having grown up with the Jon Pertwee incarnation, I felt this was something I could do, especially after the casting of Colin Baker in the leading role as another somewhat abrupt and self-important Doctor. So, after trading a couple telegrams with John Nathan-Turner, I was able to set up a meeting with him during his next visit to America and we spoke about the opportunities of an American writing for Doctor Who. He was open to this and gave me the address to send my story ideas. I sent off several of my best and...! Doctor Who was placed on hiatus. When the show came back at half its size, it was clear that any chance for an American writer to get into the show was now next to nil even before I received the follow-up 'Thanks, but...' letter from Eric Saward.

With a bundle full of Doctor Who story ideas and no outlet, I wasn't sure what I was going to do next. Then the strangest thing happened. The Doctor Who Information Society 'DWIS' was formed by someone I know and it was felt I could take my ideas and write them as narrative stories to help fill-out their newsletter. While I now look back at some of those resulting stories and cringe, I also find that they helped me to hone my writing skills and left me primed for the chance to write for 'The Centenarian' these many years later. Except for a brief aside in the DWIS Doctor Who comic serial opus 'Retirement?', I had never truly written a Doctor Who story set on Earth in the 20th century. So this was a chance to do something new!

What caused America's swift rise from an ineffectual space program of the 1950's to a quickly progressing space program of the 1960's? Sure, some might say competition from the Soviet Union, but what if there was something else? Someone helping the American space program leap forward far quicker than it otherwise would have? Say an alien who crash landed on Earth and was fueling the space race simply to have Earth reach the point where he could have a space craft developed to get him home? As this might take decades, if not centuries to accomplish, we have the Americans helping the alien to extend his life by draining the youth of a small percentage of Peace Corps work volunteers. And not only would this help to extend his life, but also leave a growing number of aged homeless people littering the streets of America. Edward Grainger would come across this little plot and with the help of the Doctor, they would put an end to it, thus explaining why the American space program suddenly lost its momentum by the early 1970's.

While I was fond of this premise, I immediately realized that I had come up with another 4-part, 25,000 word story that would fit well into the old DWIS Newsletter, but not in a short story anthology. So I pared the story down into what I felt would fit into a single 1/2 hour episode of classic Doctor Who. Out went NASA, the Peace Corps, and instead of Edward Grainger being in search of hundreds of missing people, it was now just one. To make it personal, I made this one his niece as the fates of Edward's own children had already been mapped out.

Ian liked most of the elements of my pared down story idea, save for one little bit. The plot of an alien draining the youth of unsuspecting people. Passing alternative ideas back and forth, we finally came up with a plot Ian felt would work for 'The Centenarian'.

As mentioned in previous blog entries, we (the writers) shared our story drafts with each other and benefited from our mutual feedback. I was doubly blessed when some of the minor characters in my story were adopted and woven into others' stories and vice versa. I think this is one of the things that makes 'The Centenarian' come together and really sing. This isn't just a series of short stories where Edward Grainger makes a guest appearance, but a tapestry of Edward's experiences and some of the people who wove in and out of his personal and professional life as well.

I hope you find 'The Lost' as enjoyable as the rest of the book. You might find how much it has evolved from the original concept as surprising as I have!

-- LJ Scott