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Room 101


A Sci-Fi Worlds Interview with Nick Pope

Back in the first edition of this new sci-fi column (available in issue 4 of Stuart Miller's Alien Worlds magazine) we examined the ongoing phenomenon that is Doctor Who. So when I had a chance to interview Nick Pope for Room 101, about his UFO work for the MoD, I was delighted to discover that he shared my love for this epic series and sci-fi in general. The icing on the cake, though, was when the two-time sci-fi author quickly agreed to do an interview for Sci-Fi Worlds where we get his thoughts on Doctor Who and touch on some other classics.

So what does a real life Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (though I'm not sure about Nick's rank) have to say on the Whoniverse and other sci-fi worlds?

Richard: First things first. Thanks for agreeing to do this so soon after my last interview with you for Room 101. In that interview we centred on your UFO work for the MoD, so here it will be interesting to do a sci-fi focused interview. As a successful sci-fi author yourself I'm sure you will be able to answer my questions and no doubt intrigue our readers too.

You've written two excellent sci-fi novels, Operation Thunder Child and Operation Lightning Strike. In our Room 101 interview you said: "As a successful sci-fi author myself I've been greatly influenced by Doctor Who." Which stories in particular do you think have influenced your sci-fi work the most?

Nick Pope: Although my two sci-fi novels are - on the face of it - about alien invasion, I wanted to get away from a one-dimensional good versus evil conflict. I wanted to blur the lines and make people think about the moral issues. While it's difficult to nail down particular Doctor Who stories as an influence, a central theme of morality run through the show as a whole. I guess the idea of the military being in the frontline is common to my novels and to any of the stories featuring UNIT.

Richard: In our other interview you also said that: "I'll always look back on Genesis of the Daleks as the all-time classic story. I'd love to see this remade or revisited in some way." I'm a big Genesis fan myself, why do you think so many fans continually pick this as their all-time favourite Doctor Who story?

Nick Pope: A number of reasons. Tom Baker was one of the greatest Doctors and the three way dynamic between the Doctor, Sarah-Jane and Harry worked very well. The daleks have always been popular villains, so the story was bound to appeal. But Genesis was more than just another dalek story - it was the story of the creation of the daleks and the central question of whether the daleks could be instilled with a sense of morality, or destroyed, made this a 'high stakes' story. Other highlights included the introduction of Davros and the Doctor's moralizing over his right to destroy the daleks. Finally, I think people enjoyed the parallels with the Nazis: a brutal, militaristic society in a total war. Genetic experiments. Genocide. The uniforms and the salutes. All this and more was present, with Davros as Hitler and Nyder as his Himmler.

Richard: Season four of the new series saw the return of the Daleks and their evil genius creator Davros. Why do you think they continue to be so popular with younger audiences?

Nick Pope: With CGI and a bigger budget, we can have more sophisticated-looking daleks and more of them. And now we have the fix to the 'they can't get up the stairs' issue. But again, I think the popularity reflects the fact that they are the ultimate Doctor Who villains: aggesive, ruthless, persistant and without any pity.

Richard: I think the first four Doctors will always be iconic. Whose your favourite Doctor and why?

Nick Pope: People often ask this and ask the same question about James Bond. Popular wisdom is that the answer is usually "the first one you saw". I started watching when it was Jon Pertwee, but eventually I came to prefer Tom Baker, who until recently was my favourite. But Doctor Who is now so polished that Christopher Eccleston took over the top slot ... until David Tennant joined. David, to me, is the best Doctor. I just think his acting is brilliant. He perfectly portrays the sadness, the loneliness and the detachment that are so central to the Doctor's character, but also the strength and sense of purpose. He brilliantly shows the audience the quiet "fury of the Time Lord".

Richard: Personally my favourite Doctor Who adversary has always been the Cybermen. The Moonbase, Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion are easily some of the best black and white stories, which is loudly echoed in the new series. With the Cybermen returning again this Christmas what do you think it is about them that still scares children so much? Why do you think the Cybermen have survived in the age of CGI special effects?

Nick Pope: I think there are parallels with the Daleks. People like the continuity of villains that return again and again. It gives the writers a chance to develop themes that couldn't really be included in a one-off story, such as the wider evolution of a race. But the idea that they were once humanoid, but transformed themselves into these cyborgs is scary. It's a case of "they're like us ... but not like us". Something green with tentacles is obviously alien, but maybe the Cybermen are a little 'too close to home'.

Richard: After Genesis of the Daleks, The Daemons is often said to be the best of the classic Doctor Who adventures. The way this and other classic stories like The Pyramids of Mars tied Erich von Däniken's theories into Doctor Who makes for an interesting mix of mythologies. What do you think of this?

Nick Pope: I think it's very clever. It was tapping into the popularity of such ancient mystery books in the Seventies, largely started by von Daniken. The Nazca lines get a mention in Death to the Daleks, as I recall. And we can't have mention of The Daemons without quoting the Brigadier's classic "Jenkins, chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid" line.

Richard: Two of the most memorable monsters not yet to return in the new series are the Silurians and their aquatic cousins the Sea Devils: the original reptilian inhabitants of planet Earth. Curiously, Doctor Who and the Silurians came out in 1970 the same year as Ivan T. Sanderson's Invisible Residents: The Reality of Underwater UFOs was first published. Do you think it might just be possible that another intelligent species like the Silurians or Sea Devils could have evolved right here on Earth? (ala the cryptoterrestrial hypothesis)

Nick Pope: Well, I hope these monsters are brought back at some stage! I reference the cryptoterrestrial hypothesis a fair bit in my first sci-fi novel, Operation Thunder Child. There are plenty of USO (Unidentified Submerged Object) reports and many UFO sightings where an object is seen over water, so who knows? I'm not hugely attracted to the cryptoterrestrial hypothesis, but I certainly can't rule it out. And as the saying goes, we arguably know less about the deep ocean than we do about the Moon or Mars.

Richard: Doctor Who and the Silurians ends tragically with the Brigadier blowing up the Silurian base. As someone who used to work for them, hypothetically how do you think the MoD would deal with a species like the Silurians or Sea Devils in the real world?

Nick Pope: Obviously I can't discuss specific details of Rules of Engagement, but in general terms I think I can say that if attacked, we would respond with proportionate force. However, in any contact with an extraterrestrial (or cryptoterrestrial) civilisation the key strategic objective would be to open lines of communication and facilitate peaceful contact. Secondary objectives would include information exchange, with a particular emphasis on science and technology.

Richard: In the following Jon Pertwee story, The Ambassadors of Death, Great Britain not only has a manned space program but also already sent men to Mars. As someone with an interest in space how far away do you think this was from reality at the time?

Nick Pope: This story was broadcast fairly shortly after the Apollo 11 moon landing, so there was immense public fascination in anything to do with space, coupled with a feeling that we'd all be holidaying on the moon by the end of the century. Those within government, however, would have been well aware that a manned space programme was quite beyond the UK at the time, both in terms of technical capability and, critically, finance. We still spend far too little on space, given the huge benefits to be reaped in terms of resources and knowledge.

Richard: Jon Pertwee's best enemy was easily the Master. What did you think of Derek Jacobi's and John Simm's portrayals of the character in season three of the new series?

Nick Pope: Both are brilliant actors and both were excellent in different but complementary roles that brought out that mixture of charisma and menace that defines the character of the Master. The scene where John Simms dances to the Scissor Sisters song "I Can't Decide" was outstanding.

Richard: I think Robert Holmes (who wrote the first Master story Terror of the Autons, as well as Pyramids of Mars and many other classics) will always be thought of as the best of all the Doctor Who writers but its starting to look like Steven Moffat might well give him a run for his money. I'm very much looking forward to his time as lead writer and executive producer beginning in 2010. What do you think?

Nick Pope: Russell T Davies will be a hard act to follow, but Steven Moffat can do it. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink were some of the best stories since the relaunch of Doctor Who, as was Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, so this all bodes well for the future. There's a darkness and a poignancy about his stories that I like (e.g. the "she's ghosting" scene from Silence in the Library) and another thing that appeals is that he's a writer who deals really thoughtfully with the philosophy of time travel.

Richard: Stories like Spearhead from Space, Ark in Space and The Lazarus Experiment seem to have been heavily influenced by Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials. Interestingly, David Tennant also appeared in the BBC's 2005 remake of The Quatermass Experiment just before he became the new Doctor. What do you think of this mix? Why do you think Nigel Kneale's fiction continues to inspire writers even today?

Nick Pope: I agree that some of the Doctor Who stories have been influenced by Quatermass, probably because some of the Doctor Who writers watched Quatermass when they were younger. Quatermass and his British Rocket Group even get namechecked in a couple of Doctor Who stories. There are clear parallels between the two shows and in particular the idea of a clever, moral but quirky character facing down all manner of alien threats, despite the odds being stacked against him. Sci-fi is arguably dominated by big budget Hollywood movies, so Kneale's work (like Doctor Who) appeals to us because there's something very British about it.

Richard: I grew up in the 1990s when Doctor Who was sadly trapped in the void known as UK Gold. However, there was another show on the BBC that sent me running to "hide behind the sofa." That, of course, was The X-files. What did you think of the way the series incorporated the UFO mythology into its own storylines? For instance, Roswell, Area 51, abductions, MJ-12 and even the Face on Mars are all worked into the series.

Nick Pope: Skeptics often say UFO witnesses and abductees may be influenced by sci-fi, but if anything, the reverse is true. The X-Files is the classic example and the writers clearly did their research and borrowed freely from the UFO/abduction literature. I was hired by 20th Century Fox to do some of the PR for the new X-Files movie, I Want to Believe. As well as giving a number of media interviews I was commissioned to write material on real life mysteries and conspiracy theories, which was then used in various newspaper and magazine features that came out in the run up to the movie's release. I met David Duchovny and Chris Carter at the UK premiere and Chris already knew about my government work on UFOs. The X-Files is a brilliant creation and when they 'do' UFOs, they do it really well.

Richard: Do you foresee any new esoteric mysteries becoming a part of the sci-fi canon, much like abductions and Face on Mars have?

Nick Pope: Well, the disappearing bees got a mention in Doctor Who recently and all sci-fi writers will keep an eye out for real life mysteries. I think the big one to watch is 2012 and the associated mysteries and theories that surround the Mayan calendar. The sci-fi movie 2012 will be released next year and I'm sure the whole 2012 issue will crop up in other sci-fi books, movies and TV series.

Richard: Would you like to write more sci-fi yourself? Perhaps your sci-fi books might make interesting audio books. Any plans or thoughts?

Nick Pope: I'd love to write more sci-fi and at some stage, a third novel to follow the previous two. But I'm too busy with TV and promotional work at present to write another book. Operation Thunder Child was previously optioned by Carnival Films and a screenplay was written, but the project stalled. Operation Thunder Child and Operation Lightning Strike are currently being looked at by a major Hollywood studio, with a view to making them into a blockbuster sci-fi movie.

Richard: Thanks again, as always I look forward to your future media appearances, books and other projects.

Richard Thomas, BoA UK Correspondent and Columnist.