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.


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