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Room 101

8.21.10

A Sci-Fi Worlds Interview with Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin is a Doctor Who writer and novelist best known for his A History: An Unauthorised History of the Doctor Who Universe, the most complete chronology of the fictional events of the Doctor Who Universe ever attempted. He was also the writer of the Big Finish Audio Adventure Davros and part three of the mini-series I, Davros, which explored the origins of the Dalek creator.

Richard Thomas: Just want to start by saying thanks for giving me and the Sci-Fi Worlds readers the time to answer these questions. It's really appreciated, so thanks.

I first became a fan of Doctor Who after my dad bought me the VHS video release of Genesis of the Daleks when I was about five or six I think. After that I started watching the Doctor Who repeats on UK Gold. How did you first become a fan of the series and did you have a particular favourite adversary and/or story growing up?

Lance Parkin: I've been a fan longer than I remember. I vaguely remember the pterodactyl in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. The first story I've got vivid memories of is Pyramids of Mars. I've always been startlingly uncritical about Doctor Who. I love it all. 'My' Doctor Who is Tom, Lalla and K9, my favourite era is the Rebecca Levene Golden Age of the New Adventures, I adore the new series.

Richard Thomas: With the advent of blogs it's probably easier than ever for someone to begin writing. How did you start your writing career and how has it evolved over the years?

Lance Parkin: Virgin took new writers for their Doctor Who range, so I had a go and it worked. It's as simple as that. I wrote a couple of sample chapters for a Doctor Who novel called Just War and sent them in and I got commissioned and the book got published. Then they wanted a follow-up, then another, then another, then another, then Gareth Roberts invited me to become a storyline writer on Emmerdale and, three years after my first book, at the age of 27, I was a full-time writer. I sort of knew I was lucky, but I didn't really understand it at the time.

After Emmerdale, I tried out for a couple of TV shows, but my heart wasn't in it. It's impossible, I think, for a British television viewer of good conscience to sit in the place they make Holby City without having Operation Valkyrie fantasies. So I reached a plateau with my writing a few years ago. I made a (fairly modest) living from being a writer, and that's pretty good going, but I was being hired by the same people who'd always hired me. Don't get me wrong: I'm extremely grateful to all the opportunities all those people have offered. About half the stuff I've done is Doctor Who related. I love Doctor Who, adore it, and the new series opened up new challenges, but I was aware I needed to step things up a little.

Last year, I finally sat down and decided to write an original novel and try to get an agent. I'd tried this a couple of times before, but nothing ever worked out. This time, I started on a book, an historical novel, that just wasn't clicking. So I started a short story called Fixing Jesus, a completely different thing, wrote that in a day or two and realised I'd written the first chapter of a novel.

After that, things happened surreally fast. I wrote to a few agents, sending them the first few chapters of Fixing Jesus and most of them were very keen. For some reason, I'd done something that just clicked. One agent in particular, though, really understood the book, better than I did. That was Jessica Papin at Dystel and Goderich. I reworked the book pretty much from top to bottom (apart from that first chapter, which is just about word-for-word the way it was as a short story) and she agreed to represent me.

So I'm up off my plateau. I have Fixing Jesus doing the rounds, and hopefully that'll be picked up by someone, I'm also just about to sign a really exciting, really big non-fiction deal I can't talk about yet. After that, I think it'll probably be back to the historical novel.

In terms of blogs and being published it's easier than ever to be published. It's harder than ever, I think, to be paid to write. The price of printing and distribution is so much lower than it used to be, and small presses can sell books over the internet. But that's always going to be to a limited audience. The major publishers are also making savings where they can, and that's often by not being as generous to writers, either upfront or for things like ebook rights.

I don't believe in the death of print or that people are going to stop reading books. I do think that publishers have a challenge with all the free content on the internet both the original stuff and the pirated stuff. I think it's most acute with non fiction. Those old-style episode guidebooks have just gone, now. People don't buy glossy 'making of a movie' books, they just watch the bonus DVD disc. Why buy a travel guide when you can just use your phone to find stuff?

I rather grandly see myself as a novelist now, and I think novels are pretty safe. They're still great value for money as an entertainment product.

Richard Thomas: Aside from Doctor Who I see on your website you've also written about the second best science fiction series ever broadcast: Star Trek. What are some of your favourite episodes from the original series and why do you think two sci-fi shows from the 1960s (Doctor Who and Star Trek) continue to be so wildly popular even today?

Lance Parkin: Something like The Avengers is of its time, but Doctor Who and Star Trek change with those times. So you get the benefits of nostalgia without the drawbacks. For me, growing up in the seventies and eighties, Star Trek was always just methadone when Doctor Who wasn't on the air.

I always liked it, but I never really fell for it until TNG. I've been rewatching that lately, and it's as old now as the original series was then, and it looks it in places. But all the right places. So it's got a very pleasant late eighties thing going on. I love the design of the Enterprise-D, for the same reason I don't like the E or the NX01 it doesn't look *functional*, either inside or out. It's the product of a civilisation that has such overcapacity that it can carpet the bridge and corridors. It still feels like the future, and I love that message of 'things will be different in the future, and by that we mean unambiguously better'.

I like the simplicity and honesty of the original series. It's camp, but there's also sincerity there which is why all the casting is so perfect. I don't think I have particularly exotic tastes. I like Balance of Terror, Amok Time, Who Mourns for Adonais?. Kirk's performance anxiety in The Ultimate Computer where a computer's brought in to do his job is so entertaining. I think, in the end, the show is greater than the sum of its parts a lot of the individual episodes are great examples of production line television, but it's the universe that's so compelling this optimistic, secular future that really does feel like a fusion of only the best bits of sixties America and the Soviet Union. I think that's how Trek fandom evolved, just trying to join the dots, read between the lines of something like The Way to Eden.

We need utopian thinking, we need to think about what a better future would look like. I love the Abrams movie because it's literally dazzling to live on the Enterprise.

Richard Thomas: If you were ever approached to write a Doctor Who/Star Trek crossover how do you think you would go about it?

Lance Parkin: I think it would be really difficult. It would be very easy to wallow in how wonderful it was to see the characters meet. Who needs a good story when you can just see Matt Smith arguing with Patrick Stewart or Chris Pine or whoever? What more do you need than Amy in one of those little classic Star Trek uniforms (complaining about how long the skirt is, presumably)?

The thing with crossovers is that one of them always gets to be senior partner. It's very tricky to see a Who/Trek crossover that isn't basically Doctor Who taking the piss. Paul Magrs' book The Blue Angel is a great example, and a great book. Or, flip it around and the Doctor just becomes another guest star who shows up on the Enterprise then goes away again.

My theory's always been that the Borg were a conscious attempt to do a Doctor Who in Star Trek all the other alien races are all rival powers you can negotiate with. The Borg are basically just monsters out to exterminate, and that makes it very hard for the Federation to deal with them. At the same time well, the Doctor would have sorted them out in ten minutes because he knows they're allergic to gold or something.

I quite like the idea of the Enterprise stumbling across the Doctor doing something monumentally genocidal to the Daleks at the end of a story and Kirk or Picard stepping in to stop him, and the Daleks going 'thanks, we're just a race of peaceful explorers, I don't know what his problem is', and just telling the Federation what they want to hear while they line up their plan to capture the ship. Throw those two sixties versions of the future at each other Kennedy era optimists v nuclear war mutants.

Richard Thomas: Your "A History" is easily the most complete chronology of the events of the Doctor Who universe ever printed. Where did the idea to do a complete chronology of the series and its various spin-offs (audio adventures, comic strips, novels etc.) come from and what were some of the biggest difficulties?

Lance Parkin: Well, it started out as a fan production that just covered the TV series. Virgin picked it up, and to be honest the reason the books are in that version is that it would have been far too short if they weren't. That was when there were something like seventy books, and a hundred and fifty TV stories. The last version, the Mad Norwegian one, has about a thousand stories in it and I was very grateful Lars Pearson helped me write that edition.

From there, it's a question of value. We added the comic strips last time because we didn't want people to feel ripped off buying it when they probably already have at least one earlier version. I'm sure, somewhere down the line, there will be another edition, and we'd want to add new categories, like the Annuals and Choose Your Own Adventure books.

The difficulties always come at the beginning and end, and they're all logistical ones, not artistic. At the start, we have to work out what stories to include and what not to include, and how much prominence to give it all. Where do you draw the line? However you cut it, there's always something in that you want out or out that you want in. At the end of the process well, unlike most books, adding stuff will mean adding a few lines here or there, and that throws all the page designs out. It's very difficult to finish just one section, lock that down and move onto the next.

The trick with the book is simple: Lars and I just list the facts. The Beast Below says that Earth in a thousand years is ravaged by solar flares, Cold Blood says the Silurians emerge then to live in harmony with humanity. Do those things match up? No. Are there ways of reconciling that? See the footnotes for some ideas. Their facts are more important than my theories.

Richard Thomas: You've written several novels including one of the very last past Doctor adventures, The Gallifrey Chronicles. Do you have a favourite novel you've written and who or what do you think has been your biggest influence as a author?

Lance Parkin: I'm never entirely satisfied, I am proud of just about everything of mine that's been published. There are bits in all of them I really love, bits in all of them I wish I could have another go at. If I was going to hand something of mine to someone, it would probably be Warlords of Utopia or The Eyeless. Possibly The Infinity Doctors. The first third of Father Time is pretty special, I think, the second third's not too shabby, the third third has its moments. I think, technically, I've got better as a writer over the years. I also think that it's not just a matter of technical stuff.

I read a lot. Influential? That's always a tricky one to answer, these things are rarely a straightforward cause-and-effect thing. In terms of the Who stuff, Terrance Dicks, Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts and Kate Orman, all of whom are brilliant. There's a whole bunch of headline name authors who I love and must have been influenced by Douglas Adams, Philip Pullman, Borges, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Michael Chabon, Iain Banks. I'm a big fan of Ken Macleod, Stephen Baxter and Nicholas Christopher.

Richard Thomas: If the BBC ever revived the past Doctor range do you have any ideas for new novels?

Lance Parkin: I always found the past Doctor books tricky, and the only two I did, Cold Fusion and The Infinity Doctors, cheated. I love my Doctor Who DVDs but I never really saw the point of trying to recreate that in book form, or the attraction of trying to reimagine it. There's a market for it, obviously, and there's obviously that nostalgic appeal. It's the same mentality as cosplaying, I think, the appeal exists in the skilled and forensic reconstruction of something pre-existing. I admire the people who can do it, to an extent, I just don't have that urge myself.

Richard Thomas: You've also written some excellent audio plays for Big Finish. Whose idea was it to do a Davros story that explored the characters genesis, and what do you think it is about the Davros character that resonates with audiences so strongly even today?

Lance Parkin: The Big Finish people always gave me pretty detailed briefs. Davros was part of a short series about notable villains, and Gary Russell told me to delve into Davros' origins. The thing I brought to the table was my belief that Davros was almost certainly a complete git well before his accident. I think fan wisdom before that was that the accident transformed him, hardened him. In my story it does to an extent, but it turns him into this mythical, immortal creature. Before that, he's a horrible human being, doing horrible things to the people around him.

The Daleks are Nazi toddlers, Davros is a sort of Nanny Hitler. The odd thing is that we never really see him in command of the Daleks, not in that Ming the Merciless, Palpatine kind of enthroned way. He skulks in a basement in most of them. I'm not sure what resonates, to be honest. He's visually very distinctive, obviously. I think part of it is that he's constantly plotting against the Daleks, and they're plotting against him.

Richard Thomas: The second edition of "A History" doesn't cover the most recent appearance of Davros in Journey's End, any thoughts on why the Davros we see looks like the Genesis era Davros (plus robotic arm) and not the Emperor Dalek seen in Remembrance of the Daleks? (Other than that Davros looked better.)

Lance Parkin: Well, the robotic arm is obviously the replacement for the one he loses in Revelation of the Daleks, so there's a nod to continuity there. I think the idea of Remembrance is that he's basically just the head in that Emperor casing, everything else has gone, but there's certainly room for the rest of him in there. So I don't see a huge problem. The Time Lords resurrected the Master, so it's only natural the Daleks would come for Davros (again).

Richard Thomas: Thanks Lance, hope we can do this again sometime. Feel free to tell readers where they can find your website and maybe contact you.

Lance Parkin: I've taken the plunge and joined Facebook, so people should feel free to get in touch with me there. I'm also building a website at https://lanceparkin.wordpress.com/

Richard Thomas, BoA UK Correspondent and Columnist.

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