Interview: Jacqueline Rayner | DOCTOR WHO

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Starburst Magazine caught up with novelist and columnist Jacqueline Rayner in what is proving to be a busy year for her with several new releases to look forward to in the coming months. She kindly broke off from finishing her latest book for the BBC to answer a few questions.

Starburst: Jac, thanks for taking the time to talk, I’d like to start, if I may, with your adaption for the audio of Paul Cornell’s novel Oh No It Isn’t! that was also the first audio release for Big Finish. This featured the character of Bernice Summerfield who has gone on to be a firm favourite with listeners. How did this come about?

Jacqueline Rayner: Well, I was ‘in the know’ about Big Finish’s plans because I was living with Paul Cornell at the time. He was asked to do the adaptation but didn’t have the time. Now, Paul was obviously a ‘proper’ writer whereas I was just a person who thought of herself as a writer without having any credits to show for it, but I knew I could do the job – so I asked if I could try out for it, and to my surprise they agreed. I think the fact they knew Paul would be on hand to rescue it if need be was probably a factor! But to my delight, after Oh No It Isn’t! was finished, they asked if I’d go on to adapt the rest (apart from Beyond the Sun which had been done alongside the first one), and I was thrilled.

It has just been announced that you have adapted another Bernice Summerfield novel for audio, this time Gareth Robert’s 1993 novel The Highest Science. This will be released in December of this year and I’m interested to know how your approach has developed since your first adaptation. Given how strongly Lisa Bowerman is identified in people’s imagination as Bernice does this change how you wrote the script or do you still use the original novel as the primary source?

From the first time Lisa was heard as Bernice the role has been written for her, she’s just wonderful. So it’s no change now from almost the very first day. My approach to these two new New Adventures adaptations is almost completely opposite to the approach to the original ones though. Back then, Big Finish was new and was trying to create its own identity. We were creating our own series using the books as a starting point – and some of them had to be heavily changed out of necessity anyway, as we couldn’t use BBC characters like the Doctor. Love and War and The Highest Science are aimed at fans of the original novels, there’s a nostalgia element, and therefore we’ve been as faithful as possible and tried to keep as much of Paul and Gareth’s voices in there as we can. That said, changes have had to be made, especially to The Highest Science. Not only was it due to have a small cast so I had to conflate several characters, but BBC rules meant Benny wasn’t allowed to be drugged so that cut out quite a large plot strand.

Of course you haven’t just adapted other people’s work but also written many pieces yourself. Going back to the first Big Finish Doctor Who releases you wrote The Marian Conspiracy, a Sixth Doctor story that introduced the immensely popular character of Dr Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables) who was a companion for Colin Baker’s Doctor for many future stories. How did the story come about and what was the genesis of Dr Smythe?

Gary Russell, the producer, popped his head round the door one day and asked which Doctor would I write for if I got the chance of doing an audio. I said ‘Sixth’ without hesitation, and he said ‘good’. And that’s how it started! I’d been training to be a history teacher before I became sick and Mary Tudor had been a favourite subject of mine – I’d also always loved the Hartnell historicals and wished there’d been more history-based TV stories, so there was my setting. I started off writing it for the Sixth Doctor and Peri, but Gary decided to introduce a new companion and asked me to introduce her. I had a ‘shopping list’ of character traits for her – if you listen to Marian you can hear me shoehorning them in! – and knew she’d be played by Maggie Stables. Maggie had been in the Bernice audio Just War so I knew her voice and was able to write with the actor in mind which is always helpful. I think Evelyn is wonderful and it was an honour to be the one to introduce her.

One of my favourite pieces of yours is the fabulous Doctor Who and the Pirates which has Bill Oddie as a pirate, Colin Baker signing and is one of the most distinctive stories Big Finish has ever released. Underneath all the signing and mucking around is a powerful, poignant story that has a sudden emotional kick when the listener realises what is actually happening. Did you find this easy to write or was it something that needed several re-drafts to get right?

I can’t really remember if it went through many drafts – I don’t think it did – I just remember living it for weeks, eating, sleeping and dreaming Pirates! It’s the thing I’ve written of which I’m most proud – in fact, it’s probably the only work that I am properly proud of. It’s certainly the thing that’s got the most of myself in it, it almost functions as a social test: if people like Pirates then hopefully they will like me in person, if they don’t like Pirates (which is a perfectly acceptable reaction, of course) then they probably won’t like me either (which is also a perfectly acceptable reaction). I was very, very lucky with all aspects of Pirates. Gary Russell showed such an amount of faith in letting me do my own thing, I don’t think I’ve ever had that sort of writing freedom since and it was wonderful. He was a brilliant producer and helped every step of the way, right from the very first time I phoned him and said, ‘Er, do you know if Colin can sing?’  I think most other producers would have told me not to be so silly; he told me to give it a go and see if it worked. Amazing! Barnaby Edwards is a sympathetic and incredibly clever director, and Captain Swann was written with Nicholas Pegg in mind as I adore him as an actor. Colin and Maggie are my dream Doctor Who team. And the actors, and the singing, and Tim Sutton’s music! Oh, I was blessed with that production, I really was.

One last delve into the past; you were part of the original Doctor Who Magazine Time Team, a group that re-watched all the then existing episodes of Doctor Who in order. This was all before the show came back in 2005. Looking back, how did you find the experience of watching all those stories and then having to write about them?

I think it was a very worthwhile experiment. With four people commenting, each coming at it from a different perspective, plus the advantage of seeing things in context through watching everything in order, it was a new way of reviewing. And it was a lot of fun! My husband and I are watching through in order again, one episode a night – we started on January 1st 2013, to celebrate the 50th anniversary and we’ve just reached Talons of Weng-Chiang – and I’ve changed my opinions about certain stories since we Time-Teamed them, but then it’d be more worrying if my opinions had remained set in stone. I regret some of the things I said in Time Team, because it’s always easier to express negatives if you can’t think of much to say (plus occasionally the necessary condensing of what was said meant what appeared in print wasn’t an exact expression of my opinions – my fault for running on incomprehensibly) but it was a great experience and I loved the other guys. The four of us are (hopefully) friends for life.

Your involvement with Doctor Who Magazine continues with your regular column, Relative Dimensions and the series Countdown to 50; I remember reading one of these where you talked about the Bechdel Test which (in simple terms) measures how well female characters have identities that don’t revolve around male characters. In terms of treatment of women in Doctor Who do you feel that the programme is fair to its female characters? Has the 21st century given them better definition as fully rounded people? Should the next Doctor be female?

Eeek! There’s a can of worms, but the C20th- and C21st-century shows are just different beasts. Now you’ll get character-focused stories that wouldn’t – couldn’t – have happened in the majority of C20th Who (although there are some exceptions – Kinda and Ghost Light for example). Back then companions in particular were pretty much just plot functions – which definitely isn’t a criticism, after all it’s an adventure series and the stories are key – and the depth and consistency was given to the characters by the actors rather than the scripts. For non-companions, you can probably think of more good male guest characters than female ones in old Who, but that’s because there are an awful lot more male characters to choose from so statistically speaking there’ll be a higher hit rate. Whole seasons could go by with barely a female face on screen apart from the companion, and those that did pop up could be clichéd and feeble – but then it was just as bad (if not worse) for non-Caucasians, for example. I’d be perfectly happy with a female Doctor. Asking *should* the next Doctor be female is a different question, though. Of course opening out such an iconic character to women is great from a feminist point of view. I’m also trying to look at it as a mother of two boys, though. I think it’s extremely important to have a male role model who isn’t all about guns and machismo. Would the same messages come through if a woman was in the role? I’ve no idea. My children loved Sarah Jane, so I hope it would be the case. But I’d like to have a psychologist’s opinion before I came down on one side or the other!

Moving away from Doctor Who, you are also interested in girls’ comics and Golden Age crime fiction. Can you tell Starburst readers a bit about both of those? How does this tie in with your twitter handle @GirlFromBlupo?

Ha! Yes, I adore girls’ comics, with a special interest in those that were my own childhood favourites, IPC titles of the 1970s and ’80s like Jinty and Misty. Oh, the imagination that went into those – but how cruelly ephemeral the medium was. There have been a few reprints lately, but how I wish that works of genius like Worlds Apart and Land of No Tears were available to an audience again. My twitter handle comes from a 1990s Bunty story, The Boyfriend from Blupo. It was an enormously fun strip that saw a girl dating an alien, with some confusion about matters of appearance – the Blupo view of male attractiveness was opposite to that of Earth but you never discovered if their view of female beauty was the same, so the lead character, Lee, never knew if her boyfriend telling her she was pretty was a good or bad thing. I loved that ambiguity. How much of a person’s ideas of their own worth are wrapped up in perceptions of how others see them? OK, so it was a throwaway joke in one episode of a comic strip aimed at 9 year olds, but it fascinated me!

I know you have many projects on the way at present. This month (March 2014) sees the release of a Big Finish story called Starborn and I understand you are in the throes of finishing a quiz book for the BBC. What can you tell us about those?

Starborn is a story of Vicki receiving spirit messages that purport to come from herself, after death. Time travel has some pretty freaky aspects if you think about it, and being dead in the past while alive in the present – which is what would happen to Vicki, left behind in Troy – is a creepy thought. And I just love Vicki, so jumped at the chance to write for her and put her central stage. I have indeed just delivered The Official Doctor Who Quiz Book to the BBC – 3500 questions. Wow. Can’t quite believe it’s finished! There should be questions in there for every level of knowledge. My favourite parts as a compiler were the brainteasers that need more lateral thinking, but there are plenty of plain facts in there too. Hopefully there’s also some interesting trivia to be discovered among the questions.

You also find time to fit in a project that you call Delegate Detecting – how do you find time to fit everything in and what can you tell us about that?

Oh, I have a ridiculous obsession with the Dalek Delegates from Mission to the Unknown/The Daleks’ Masterplan. It’s a twofold thing – I adore Doctor Who monsters from the Hartnell era, a combination of unsophistication and imagination. The Monoids are a big favourite, for example! But I also love the mystery. This is a television programme within living memory, and yet there are so many things about it we just don’t know. We don’t know exactly what all the Delegates looked like. We don’t even know what their names were! I just decided one day that I wanted to collate all the available information and the result was the website. It’s odd you should ask about fitting in everything, because from my point of view I don’t fit in half the things I want to do. I have a chronic illness that restricts available time and energy, two small children that I want to spend as much quality time with as possible and I’m trying to keep a writing career together! So I’m constantly frustrated with all the plans and ideas I can’t pursue. But don’t get the idea I’m not happy with my lot. Not only do I have a wonderful family, but I’ve achieved my childhood dream of being part of Doctor Who, in however small a way. Doctor Who books and Doctor Who Monthly (as it was then) were more part of my childhood than the programme itself. I still can’t quite believe I actually now have a column in DWM! Total wish fulfilment.

And one last question, if the TARDIS were to appear in your sitting room and the door open, which Doctor would you like to walk out of the doors and why?

Until recently, that would have been an impossible question. How to choose? But now, it clearly has to be the Twelfth Doctor. I cannot wait to see what he’s going to be like!

STARBORN was released on March 13th (details on the Big Finish website), and her adaption of THE HIGHEST SCIENCE will be available in December 2014.

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+1 #1 Russ 2014-03-30 21:21
This is just a public vote (or hope) in favor of Rayner getting a crack at televised Who. Considering her Big Finish work, I think her style and voice would be a needed blast of fresh air for the show. Much of my bias comes from the fact that she also votes Six and Smythe as a top pair, and recognizes the value of the (occasional) pure historical. Cheers!

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