Interview: Gary Russell | DOCTOR WHO [Part 1]

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Gary Russell is the very definition of the Doctor Who renaissance man, having gone from editing the official magazine to script editing Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, via writing New Adventures novels and producing at Big Finish, along with a host of other things. Just prior to Gary’s departure for Australia, where he is currently producing a children’s sci-fi series, Starburst Magazine was lucky enough to sit down with him and have a conversation encompassing his entire Doctor Who career to date.

Starburst: Was it acting in The Famous Five as a child that led you towards other areas, such as writing and directing?

Gary Russell: No, not at all. It’s because of Doctor Who that I became a child actor and did all these things; it’s all because of Doctor Who. It’s because as a kid, all I ever wanted to do was be in Doctor Who. I realised the only way to be in Doctor Who was to become an actor, and I fell in love with it, I fell in love with acting and all of that. So that’s why I went into that side of the profession, then while I was doing the acting, I became far more interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff. So when I gave up acting, which wasn’t until I was nineteen, I very quickly said, “Right, if I’m not going to be acting, I’m not going to get into Doctor Who that way, I’ll have to do something behind-the-scenes and see where that takes me.” It’s all from watching Doctor Who as a kid, it just got me hooked on the art and the concept of working in TV and film. It wasn’t a random thing, it wasn’t that one day I woke up and said, “I’m going to be an actor,” it’s because I was in love with Doctor Who.

So how much did you learn from being on TV sets at such a young age?

I learnt, particularly doing The Famous Five – we had such a variety of different directors and different first ADs and things like that – I learnt very much to be nice to people, and to listen to people and to be encouraging and to give people a chance to do things. And that’s always kind of been my philosophy in life; if you’re in a position to give someone else a chance to do something they want to do, then you do it. You don’t take that chance necessarily yourself, which is why for instance when I was running Big Finish, the amount of things I wrote can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I think I must have overseen well over a hundred or something audio dramas, of which I think four maybe have my name on, maybe five? And I think that’s all I wrote as a producer; I made damn sure that everyone else got a chance to write.

Because I think variety’s the life blood of something. I mean it happened when I went to Marvel and edited Doctor Who Magazine. The first thing I did was, rather than write everything myself, because that would be insane, I went to all my mates that I’d known through Doctor Who and through writing for fanzines and things like that and said, “Come and write articles,” or, “Come and write comic strips,” and everything. So it was all about getting good people in, but also people you wanted to do a favour, to come in and get their chance. I gave a lot of people their first “professional” writing gig on things like the comic strip, and Brief Encounters, because I wanted to get them seen by people. It’s kind of just the way I’ve always run my life, and it’s probably a very stupid one because it means I don’t get on very far, but everyone else does. But I quite like that really, there’s nothing better than sitting down and going, “That person’s really successful, and I’m a tiny, weenie little cog in the wheel of that success, at some point in the dim and distant past.”

And that all came out of doing The Famous Five, that all came out of talking to the directors, talking to the ADs, talking to the cameramen. There was one episode of The Famous Five where I was hardly in it because I got kidnapped in Episode One and didn’t come back until the end of Episode Two; I spent the whole fortnight with the editors in the editing suite, watching how they put it together and realising why directors had shot something one way which I didn’t understand, and then you see it physically – and this is physical editing, sitting there on a Steenbeck gluing bits of film together, and I sat up with the editors and they let me do it. I mean, they sat over my shoulder and said, “You do that, and you put that there,” but I actually did some physical editing. And all that gives you a much bigger worldview so you don’t become obsessed with just what I was doing as an actor, and then, when I was at DWM you don’t become obsessed with it just becoming a sort of autocratic magazine, and at Big Finish, I didn’t want to make it a sort of autocratic audio company. It had to have diversity. You had to get lots and lots and lots of people involved and a big melting pot, because that way you get creativity and you get ideas; occasionally you get complete and utter fuck-ups, and you live with them, and you learn from them and you go, “Okay, that didn’t work, but you know what? That writer’s really good.” It’s just so much more fun that way, and I’m in this life to have fun.

Gary Russell 1

How did your role in The Airzone Solution come about, then?

Bill [Baggs] just phoned me up one day and said, “Colin and Nicola are down here asking why they’re not seeing you.” And I said, “Eugh, I’m nothing to do with your bloody film!” And he said, “Why don’t you come down for a day, I need someone to play an assassin? You can wear a suit, and I’ll give you a gun to play with.” And I said, “You’re on.” I’d never held a gun in my life before. And that was great fun. So yes, that’s why I did that. But that was just helping Bill out, helping a mate out. I did a couple of his small films, just for the sheer hell of it. That was probably the only time you’ve got all those actors together, actually, because even in Dimensions in Time they weren’t all together. It was Bill’s attempt to do a thirtieth anniversary Doctor Who story, without doing anything to do with Doctor Who.

And I think it worked very very well. It’s one of the better ones of these sort of spin-offs. It’s quite interesting that during that period, so many people thought, ‘There’s no Doctor Who, we’ll either make our own Doctor Who or make something similar.’ So you’ve got all of the BBV stuff, which is of frankly variable quality, but I do think Airzone is particularly good. Then you’ve got Dreamwatch and Jason [Haigh-Ellery] ganging up to do Shakedown, which is fun and I think Kevin [Davies] directed that brilliantly. Then you’ve got Reeltime doing first of all Wartime, and then Downtime, which I think is really really good. Shakedown and Downtime are without doubt the two best of anything that’s ever been done along those lines, I think. But I do think that The Airzone Solution, because it’s not Doctor Who, absolutely deserves a big honourable mention, because I think it’s one of Nick [Briggs]’ best scripts. Those three I think stand out; I’m not saying everything else is dross because it isn’t, they’re all very good and they’ve all got plus and negative points, but I do think those three stand out as being very, very good examples; they’re not professional, you couldn’t show them on telly, but you know what? They’re not far off it.

We tried to get a clip of Downtime for The Sarah Jane Adventures at one point, but they wouldn’t play ball. We wanted to use it in one of the sort of flashback sequences, and it would literally have been a clip – of Sarah with the Brigadier, I think. And the people behind Downtime said no.

Was it working on the magazine that led to your writing New Adventures?

No, not at all. Well, I can’t say, “No, not at all,” because that’s a bit disingenuous, but it wasn’t a case of, “This guy’s the editor of Doctor Who Magazine, quick, let’s give him a book to write.” It wasn’t that at all, because I’d actually submitted the idea for Legacy possibly before I joined the magazine, but I was certainly freelancing for it because I interviewed Peter Darvill-Evans before the books all came out. Then I interviewed him again after Timewyrm had been commissioned but probably they hadn’t all been published, and that was the point when he said to me, “We’re looking at opening and expanding it up to new writers.” That great thing where at the time you think, ‘Wow, this is real foresight, this is good thinking by Virgin. They want to find exciting new writers.’ With hindsight of course, you go, ‘It’s because they’re bloody cheap, and they couldn’t afford big posh writers to keep doing Doctor Who books because they had to do them on a shoestring’. But nevertheless, that ability to open up that market to unknown writers was phenomenal, so I jumped straight in there and submitted Legacy of Peladon very, very early on. I certainly did that before I went to Marvel full-time. It would have been probably during 1991, so Peter only knew me as this guy from Doctor Who Magazine who’d interviewed him, when I sent it in. And then we talked on and off and then I started working at Marvel, but you’ve got to bear in mind that Legacy was commissioned early 1993, so it wasn’t really that Peter did think, ‘Oh, this guy’s the editor of Doctor Who Magazine, this’ll get ourselves some exciting publicity,’ because of course I made damned sure it went exactly the other way, for the same reason as I couldn’t review my own books, I had to get Craig [Hinton] in to do it. But it wasn’t because I was editing Doctor Who Magazine, I had submitted it before I ever started working full-time for Marvel.

Gary Russell 2

How long prior to the New Adventures were you aware that they were coming?

Peter had first mooted it to the BBC before the show had finished, before any of us even knew it was the last season, because it would have been around the time of Battlefield that Peter I think first said to JNT, “We’re running out of Target novelisations, when we’ve done the four from this year we’ve pretty much nailed it on the head apart from a couple of John Peel Dalek stories,” and he then said, “I’d like to start doing original stuff.” And I think either John [Nathan-Turner] or BBC Worldwide said no, but very soon after the series coming to an end, that suggestion was brought up and they said “Yes.” And I just think it took quite some time to get off ground, because it would, because Peter was a very very meticulous hard-worker, and he wanted to make sure that it was going to be the right kind of series; he was very keen that it didn’t just look like ‘a Target novelisation’, you know, he didn’t want to make 126-page Doctor Who “novels”. He wanted to make them good and make them powerful and deep and full-sized novels. And so that took a little time to set up.

One of the criticisms of the New Adventures is that some people were using too many elements from the past...

Ha ha! When you say “some people” you mean me!

But I find that a works as an entry point for people to be able to enjoy Doctor Who in a new medium, if you know what I mean?

Yes I do. It’s weird, I kick against other people doing it and then find myself guilty of doing it all the time myself. I think that’s just a sign that I’m not as good a writer as they are. I used to try at Big Finish and make people work very hard not to use old monsters, and say, “No no no, do your own stuff.” And then there’s me sitting down writing books simultaneously, throwing everything in the kitchen sink into it. But I think that’s probably just because I’m not the world’s greatest writer, and I felt that I needed the back-up of a bit of history. Plus the fact that as a Doctor Who fan there’s nothing more fun than watching an episode and saying, “Oh I could do something as a sequel to that,” or, “I could bring that element back again.”

I’ve ploughed the depths of Doctor Who and scraped the barrel and brought all sorts of things into the books, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Every time I do I say, “I’m never doing this again, I’m going to write a novel that’s got absolutely no continuity in it whatsoever,” and if I remember rightly, of all my Doctor Who novels, I think that is true of precisely one of them, which would be The Glamour Chase. Actually no, I’m not sure that [Invasion of the] Cat People’s got any old monsters or characters in it either actually. And actually Horror of the Space Snakes doesn’t either. So all right, I’ve written three Doctor Who novels that don’t have ‘kisses to the past’ in them. I’ve also written a great number of others that are full of Silurians or Ice Warriors or Autons, or Wirrn and the Foamasi teaming up – I mean, how stupid is that? – or the Celestial Toymaker and the entire history of Gallifrey. So I’m pretty shit when it comes to these things.

Even Beautiful Chaos became a Mandragora story and I really didn’t want it to be. But you know what? I do love it, and I think it would work so much better if it wasn’t Mandragora, and something else. But it became a handy short-hand for it. I sat there, I was resisting it, and then I think it was Russell [T Davies] turned around to me and just went, “Look, don’t be stupid, if you’ve already got something that does the job, inventing something else that might as well be Mandragora, well you might as well use Mandragora then.” And I thought, ‘Well, you know, if he’s telling me that, I’ll believe him.’

There were rumours in 2009 that Beautiful Chaos would form the basis for David Tennant’s regeneration story.

That’s complete nonsense! Really? [Laughs.] Of course, Russell did take the name of one of the characters from Beautiful Chaos and make her a real part of Doctor Who. “Nettie” becomes one of the Silver Cloak, which is lovely. And he said, “Do you mind if I do this?” I was like, “Are you insane? ‘Course I don’t mind!” It’s always lovely with things like that; it’s like when Mark Gatiss phoned me up one day and said, “Can I steal your Ice Warrior shell-suit joke from Legacy and put it into Cold War?” And I was like, “Yeah, ‘course you can. Wow! That’s the biggest compliment in the world.” And that’s Mark, he’s gorgeous and gentlemanly.


When Legacy, your first book was published, was that a special moment, even in spite of already having been editor of the magazine?

Yeah. All my life, I’ve spent my entire childhood walking into WH Smiths and looking at Target Doctor Who novels, and saying, “One day I want to have a book with my name on the front.” I didn’t necessarily know that it was going to be a Doctor Who book, but I wanted to be able to walk into Smiths and see a paperback book with my name on the front. When that happened with Legacy, I had the biggest moment of pride in the world ever, and I used to walk into WH Smiths in Lewisham and places like that, and there was Legacy with my name on, and I just felt the most amazing sense of pride and joy and relief, and everything under the sun.

And frankly, I still get that today, whether it’s a brand new book or I walk into a shop and see something I wrote five years ago. The moment I stop getting that thrill and that excitement will be the day I think I should give up ever wanting to be any kind of writer. Anyone that’s blasé and goes, “Ah well, you know, it’s just yet another one of my books that’s come out,” apart from the fact they’re a knob, they’re missing out something inside them, something is dead inside them. You know I used to get excited every time a new issue of Doctor Who Magazine came in, and then I’d walk into Smiths at Charing Cross Station and I’d see it there and I’d go, “Ooh, ah! It’s a magazine we produced and how exciting, it’s on sale!” I still get that today when I see things. It’s always a thrill and I think it’s very important to keep those thrills.

In a nutshell, how did your involvement with Big Finish come about?

I’d done the TV movie novelisation, and I said to Jason [Haigh-Ellery], “Wouldn’t it be brilliant to do audio?” I think I’d written the talking book version, which I hated doing because I had to cut 25,000 words out of something that already wasn’t exactly long in the first place, so I was aware that BBC Audio existed, or Radio Collection as I think they were called then. So I said to Jason, “Look, you know, it’s like the good old days of Audio Visuals, but why don’t we do this properly? Let’s go to the BBC.”

He and I arranged a meeting, we went to the BBC and we met the people from Radio Collection, three very stern ladies who said to us, “No, everything to do with Doctor Who is being kept in-house.” They were just taking the books back from Virgin at that point, so it was all about “Doctor Who is being reborn and it’s all going to be done by BBC Worldwide; go away, thank you very much.” So we did, we went away and we did Benny [Bernice Summerfield] instead, because Jason and I had decided that one way or another we were going to make audio drama, and if we couldn’t have Doctor Who we’d have the next best thing.

So we did that, we got the first couple of Bennys out, it’d be about September or October of 1998 I think, got a phone call from Steve Cole at BBC Books, who said, “BBC Radio Collection want to talk to you.” And I thought, ‘Oh God, what have we done? Have we used some sound effects or something in Benny; oh God has Alistair [Lock] stolen something we shouldn’t have? Oh we’re in trouble!’ So Jason and I were dragged up to BBC Worldwide, the BBC Radio Collection; same three stern looking women across the table, who turned around to us and said, “We’ve heard your Bernice Summerfield things, we thought they were very good, Steve brought them to our attention, they’re very very good. You should be very proud of what you’ve done there.” We said, “Thank you very much.” They said, “Now we had this most brilliant idea. We thought, ‘What if you could do Doctor Who full-cast audio dramas?’” And we looked at them, thinking, ‘We brought this to you eighteen months ago, last year or something, but we won’t say anything, we’ll just go, “What a fantastic idea! God, that’s a superb idea!”’ And they said, “Would you like a licence to do it?” And we went, “Yes!”

So technically they came to you with the licence?

We went to them first, and they obviously forgot us. I mean, I genuinely don’t think they remembered they’d seen us the year before. I genuinely don’t think it had crossed their minds that we’d been the same people that had said this to them. But obviously something somewhere had planted this seed without them realising it, and if they wanted to think it was their idea, that worked in our favour even better. Because yes, they came to us and said, “Would you like a licence to make Doctor Who? We think it’s time to farm this out; we can’t do it internally, we haven’t got the budget, the time or frankly the expertise to do it.” So those first two Bennys acted as a very good audition piece for us – because that’s all it was at that point, just Oh No, It Isn’t and Matt Jones’ Beyond the Sun. And they headhunted us and said, “Come and make Doctor Who!” And we said, “Absolutely!” And off we went, and then about a year later, there we were with Sirens of Time.

Sirens of Time

Did it give you a shiver down the spine, to be asked to make “actual” Doctor Who?

At that point, no. At that point, all I could think of was looking at Jason, thinking, ‘One of us needs to reply to this question, is it going to be me or is it going to be you? You’re in charge of money, I’m in charge of being an arsehole, which of us is it going to be?’ And of course it was Jason, who immediately got very business-y and started talking sense to them. I think inside I was gibbering, going, “We’re going to make Doctor Who!”

But I didn’t really go away thinking that. I went away thinking quite straightforwardly, ‘Okay, I need to sit down in front of the computer, and work out a game plan for this, and run it past Jason, talk to a couple of other people, talk to Briggsy, see if he’s interested’ – because obviously Nick was very involved with Benny; I don’t even know why I ever imagined Nick wouldn’t be interested, but I thought, ‘I don’t want to cut Nick out of this, so he’s got to be there from Day One.’ Obviously Steve Cole was very involved, because he was going to be arranging everything from BBC Worldwide’s point of view. So it was more a case of sitting down and writing to Colin, Sylvester and Peter and saying, “Hello! We’ve got a licence to do Doctor Who; are you going to be on board?” And Colin and Sylvester immediately of course said yes, because they knew me and they knew what we were about, and although I sort of knew Peter and I’d interviewed him a few times at conventions, I don’t think I was the sort of person that had sort of necessarily stayed in his subconscious, which I had with Sylvester and Colin. It was Colin I think that said to Peter, “Oh no, you should definitely do these.” And Peter said, “Oh in that case, yes of course.”

So that was our three Doctors and Nick wrote Sirens of Time; we had a nice big exciting meeting round at Gary Gillatt’s house, because his was the biggest house in South East London we could fit everyone in, with all our proposed writers, some of whom said yes, some of whom walked out saying, “No, not if you’re not going to create your own unique Doctor, then I’m not interested.” That was [Steven] Moffat. He walked out saying, “Good luck chaps. I’m fully behind you, think that what you’re doing is brilliant, it’s going to be great. But I’m only interested in working with you if you’re moving forward, I’m not interested in looking backwards.” So I was like, ‘Okay, well that’s Steven out the window.’ But you know, [Mark] Gatiss was there, [Paul] Cornell was there, obviously Nick was there; can’t think if [Peter] Anghelides was there, he might have been, Jac Raynor was there, Steve Cole was there; I think Justin [Richards] wasn’t there but he was aware of it, because he was the first person I asked.

So you know, we were all there at the beginning, and it was only when we were actually making Sirens of Time, we were sitting in the studio – Nick was directing, the three Doctors were in there (he was obviously doing Episode Four) – and Jason and I were sitting in the green room – I think Maggie [Stables] was probably in the studio but I think a couple of other people were probably in the green room with us, I think Tony Keetch was there – and I looked across at Jason and we just caught each others’ eye, this was about three o’clock in the afternoon on the second day, we just caught each others’ eye and I just went, “We’re making Doctor Who. We’ve done it, we’ve actually pulled this off.” And we kind of looked at each other and grinned, and I should have said to myself then, “This is the next eight fucking years of your life!”

Axis of Insanity

And did it ever become “just a job”?

No. God no. It was always special. I’m not going to say it was always fun, but it was always special. I never, never resented Doctor Who, I never fell out of love with Doctor Who, I never fell out of love with the three and then later four Doctors, nothing like that. I fell out of love desperately with being effectively a one-man band, which was partially – well, I’m sure Nick and Jason will tell you, mostly – my fault, because I’m quite a control freak. And I have to be across everything; if it’s going out with my name on, then I stand or fall by every single decision that was made, and I would make all those decisions. And you know, I’ve got writers, I’ve got post-production people, I’ve got other directors I can rely on if I need to, but the actual day-to-day running of the Doctor Who side of that company – because obviously Nigel [Fairs] was looking after Sapphire and Steel and The Tomorrow People by then; Jason was obviously just looking after the money but also had other businesses to run – so Doctor Who, which was the big public face of the company, was me and Ian Farrington sitting in a corner. And he was sort of looking after the Short Trips and going to the Post Office, and being my slave. And then Nick would come in every so often and sit in the other corner and make noises and record Dalek voices and edit whatever plays he was editing, he preferred to do that in the office rather than do it at home, which was great, because it made us a little “fun” team then.

But there were moments where I’d have a complete meltdown because I was getting there at 9 in the morning and I was going home at 11 at night, and I was doing that six or seven days a week, because the days I wasn’t in the office, I was in the studio. My other half would occasionally turn around to me and say, “Oh, you live here do you? That’s nice! I’ve actually seen at least an hour and a half of you this week.” And so that made me have to try and pull back a bit, but pulling back meant things didn’t happen, and I freaked out at one point – that’s why we got Alan Barnes in as a sort of script editor, and just as a general sort of sounding board for me. Poor bastard had to sit and listen to my mad ideas. Because I needed just that little bit of weight taken off my shoulders. This would have been middle of 2004 I think, that Alan came in. And then, you know, two years later and I’m heading up to Cardiff. No Alan must have come in in 2005, because I left in 2006. So yeah, it was a bit of a strain, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Running Big Finish was just amazing.

Click here to read PART 2 of our interview...

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