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: How did you get the job in Cardiff?
Gary Russell: I was asked to go and do the Doctor Who The Inside Story book for Russell; he wanted a writer he knew so he put me forward for it. Actually I think it was Gillane at Confidential had put my name forward first of all, and Russell went, “Oh God yes, that’s brilliant,” because I’d written the Regeneration book and everyone loved that. Which is lovely.
And so I went up to Cardiff, and I started going up to Cardiff on a very regular basis, quite a few days a week; when I wasn’t doing Big Finish stuff I was saying to Jason, “Look, I’ve got to go to Cardiff for three or four days.” I worked my schedule around it and like I say, by that point Alan was around so it made life a little bit easier and I could nip up to Cardiff and interview people – go round the country actually interviewing people. And one day I was in Manchester interviewing Russell for the book – he was the last person I interviewed for the book, because I wanted his opinion on everything that everyone else had said, really, because I wanted him to say, “Yes or no, that’s not true”; even though it comes down to a matter of perspective, the bottom line is, it’s Russell’s programme, so he has the final say on everything. And actually of course, he didn’t want a single word or anything changed at all, because he’s like me, he’s very warts and all and says, “No, if someone thinks that then that’s their opinion. It might be mad, but that’s their opinion!”
So I was supposed to be up there for about an hour and a half, and I think I was up there for six hours with him, and we were chatting away and he said, “Look, what do you want to do with your life? Are you planning to stay at Big Finish forever?” And I was saying, “No, I’ve had this sort of slight meltdown, and it’s been eight years and that’s a long time, and I love it, but I think the time will come eventually that I have to let it go.” And he said, “Well, what do you want to do in life?” I said, “Oh you know, I’ve always wanted to get back into telly.” And he said, “Oh, do you want to write TV?” And I said, “No. No I’m not interested in writing. Script editing, producing, that sort of thing.” He went, “Oh well that’s fun. That’s worth knowing.”
About two days later I got a phone call, from someone I didn’t know at BBC Wales called Matthew Bouch, who rang me up and said, “I’ve just been talking to Russell and Julie about you. He says you might be looking for some advice about how to do script editing. Next time you’re up in Cardiff, pop into my office, say ‘Hello’ and I’ll talk you through how you get into the industry.” And I thought, ‘Well that’s a nice opportunity.’ So I went up there, did whatever interviews I was doing, went and met Matthew, talked to Matthew for about an hour, and he said at the end of it, “Excellent. Well, can you start next Monday?” And I went, “Is this a job interview?” And he went, “Not at the beginning, but it turned into one, didn’t it?” And I said, “Oh my God. Yes, obviously! – but I’ve got lots of commitments at Big Finish.” And he went, “That’s all right, we’ll let you do that. Let’s say you’re up here three days a week, the other two days you’re with Big Finish until you’ve got everything out of the way that you need to get out of the way.”
Which at that point I think was Joe and I, Davros; I think they were the only things I sort of had outstanding. And so other than Martin’s World War One story which sadly I was unable to direct, which is a shame because I’d like to have done – the two I didn’t direct that I had set up and was working on that I really wish I had directed, one was Martin’s and I really wish I could have done Dan Abnett’s Nocturne; they were the two scripts that I really really loved that I had to let go, not to take anything away from Circular Time or any of the other stuff that I’d been working on that Nick eventually made, but I was well along with both Nocturne and No Man’s Land and I really wish I could have done those. Particularly No Man’s Land, I did love No Man’s Land.
But you know, the BBC were fantastic at letting me go off and wrap up what I had to with Big Finish. So I started in Cardiff in June, but I didn’t finish at Big Finish until November, so I was running the two jobs simultaneously for that length of time. And that was fun. And there I suddenly was up in Cardiff, getting myself a flat up here, and going, “Oh my God, big life change, I’ve moved to another country!” Ha!
And then you got to work on TV Doctor Who.
That was the supreme irony, I wasn’t really. I went up to Cardiff to be a script editor in the drama department; there was no guarantee I was going to work on Doctor Who; the only Doctor Who stuff that I was working on was Russell had asked me, because he knew I understood Worldwide and I understood licensing and I understood good storytelling and I understood Doctor Who, blah blah blah, if I would take over all “additional fiction”, and as it turned out all factual as well. Doing all approvals and you know, commissioning and all of that sort of stuff that went with it. So every time somebody wanted to propose a book or a comic strip, or a factual book about Doctor Who, or the back of toy packaging or anything like that, it came through me, and then Russell and Julie never had to worry about it, because they knew somebody was looking after it who knew what they were doing. Which is lovely and I did that. And because of that, I had to be across every single aspect of Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sarah Jane. And that was quite fun, so I was kind of like a script editor, without actually script editing Doctor Who.
But, on my very first day in Cardiff, when I was looking particularly lost and terrified, Brian Minchin threw nine scripts in front of me and said, “Have a look at those and tell me what you think of them.” And it was nine episodes of Series One of Torchwood. And I read them and I fell in love with that series and about three days later, was talking to Russell, somewhere either on the phone or over a cup of tea or something, and said, “Do you know what? God, I really would love to work on Torchwood. This series is amazing.” And he said, “Fine. Well when we come to do Series Two, if we come to do Series Two, we’ll get you onto that.”
And that’s exactly what happened, I did Series Two of Torchwood, and then while doing that also went onto Series Two of Sarah Jane, and worked on the two of those for a couple of years. And then eventually, the only Doctor Who I ever did was The Waters of Mars and The End of Time One and Two. The only episodes that I ever worked on properly. I did actually script edit a lot of Blink, because Helen was unavailable when Blink was in the initial parts of production, I mean Helen did a week, then I did about two or three weeks after that, I did all the tone meetings and production meetings and script revisions and everything on Blink, and then Helen came back to finish it off. And she very kindly asked if we could have a joint credit on Blink, and the high-ups in BBC Wales went, “No! Only one script editor per story.” Helen got the credit on Blink, and that’s fair because she did the hard work on it, I did the easy fun stuff.
Because I love meetings, I love tone meetings, oh my God I could spend my life in tone meetings, I just find meetings like that and production meetings so exciting, and I could see the bored faces on a lot of people and I’d sit there going, ‘How could you be bored by this? We are making television; this is the most exciting thing in the world.’
Script editors generally didn’t go – I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to speak for Helen or Elwyn Rowlands or Simon or whoever and get it rewritten, I’d know why, I’d be able to say to them, “Well actually that church doesn’t have a door there, the church they’re using has got a side entrance,” or, “It’s actually in a big green field and not in the middle of waste ground.” All of these things, so I thought it was very important that script editors went on recces.
And I love them, it’s a fantastic bonding experience, and I had that with Sarah Jane, I didn’t really have it with Torchwood so much. I could honestly tell you that I could walk on the set of Torchwood and nobody really knew who I was. I could walk on the set of Sarah Jane and I knew absolutely everybody, because I’d always gone on the recces, I’d always been around, I made an effort. I think when I was doing Torchwood I was just too new and scared to make that effort. And I regret that because yeah, I love that show, but other than a couple of the key personnel involved with it, most of them, they all knew Brian because he’d done Series One, but very few of them actually knew who the hell I was. And I didn’t go on set, I didn’t go on location, I didn’t go on recces and things, because I was just a bit too scared and new to it all. But with Sarah Jane I thought, ‘No, this is what I’m going to do.’
I remember saying the first time, “Can I come on the recce?” and everyone looking at me like, ‘Are you mad?’ And Joss the director saying, “it’ll be fantastic if you came on the recce; no you must. It’ll be brilliant, we’ll have great fun!” And we did, we had a ball.
It goes back to what you called being a “control freak”, but having oversight helps to bring everything together.
And you speed things up, you’re cutting a whole wasted draft of the script out because you understand what people need. Absolutely. I think television is the most fantastic collaborative industry, and you need to be part of that collaboration because the moment you’re not part of it, the moment you set yourself aside from it, everything comes crashing down. You don’t understand collaboration, you don’t want to be collaborative, you’re in the wrong business.
Did you ever find these series spoiled for you, by being across them all?
No. Because when you’re in it, when you’re part of it, you don’t think like that, actually, it’s all exciting in a completely different way. I will say that my last couple of years in Cardiff, when I was doing all the Worldwide stuff and Steven had taken over and Matt was the Doctor, and I wasn’t remotely involved in anything other than the Worldwide stuff, then I felt it spoiled it for me, because I didn’t have a hands-on feel of it. And even though on Doctor Who as I say I wasn’t actually a script editor on most of it, Russell and Julie were inclusive, you know? Particularly Russell, who loved the fact there was a mad Doctor Who fan in the office who would remember who was the third extra on the left and what Axons’ goo was.
I remember texting him when I first read Gridlock and saying, “The Macra? You are absolutely insane!” And he went, “Nobody else in the entire office understands that reference! Nobody else knows what Macra are; thank God I’ve got someone here that I can have a laugh about Macra with!” So he was very very inclusive about that, and so obviously was Julie because Julie was amazing, and so was Phil actually. Phil Collinson was great fun, you know, him asking me all sorts of questions about Time Lord costumes, which is why the little boy playing the Master in The Sound of Drums, when he’s looking into the Temporal Schism he’s wearing a War Games Time Lord costume; that’s just because I suggested it. Phil was asking me about different Time Lord costumes, I said, “This will work really really well for that sequence.” Boom, Louise was off making that costume. Little things like that, it’s great fun.
You never had any of that once Steven and Piers were on board. Even though I was doing the computer games and everything, I never quite felt part of it. And in that respect, watching the series did feel slightly spoiled because I thought, ‘Oh, I now have to know what’s going on in these scripts,’ but I’m not as involved with them, and therefore I feel one step removed, so as a fan, it’s all a bit spoiled for me.
I was really looking forward to Series Seven because of course it’s the first series that’s gone out after I’d left the BBC. And I thought, ‘I’ll get away with this, I won’t have to know what’s going on.’ And then: “Can we have an update to the Encyclopaedia before it goes out, please?” So that was the first half of the season spoiled. And then: “Can we have an update for Christmas?” So that was The Snowmen spoiled. Then: “Can we have an update for the second half?” “Oh for Christ’s sake, can’t I just watch an episode of Doctor Who without having to have read the script first?” I know lots of people would say to which, “Oh you moaning twat!” But I really set myself up for enjoying this season without knowing.
I will say this: I know nothing about the fiftieth anniversary special, not a single beat, other than the fact there’s a Zygon in it . And I am so looking forward to that, because it’s the first Doctor Who since The Parting of the Ways that I know nothing about, and I’m so excited because I don’t have to write part of the Encyclopaedia update, because the next update will be that and Christmas, so I probably will have to know about Christmas beforehand but I won’t have to know about the anniversary. Yes! I can watch an episode of Doctor Who with everybody else! Quite literally I imagine. And it’ll all be exciting and new and fresh! First time since Christopher Eccleston said goodbye. I’m rather looking forward to it, it’s rather nice.
Russell said much the same when he stepped down.
It’s a huge difference. Gosh, fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, how mad is that? I’ll tell you one thing. Peter Capaldi, brilliant actor. I wanted him for The Infinite Quest, and so Andy Pryor got in touch with his agent and said, “Would he be interested?” Because I knew he was a fan. And he said, “Yeah, I’d love to. My only problem is, if I do a cartoon Doctor Who, does it mean I can never be in ‘real’ Doctor Who?” And so I went to Russell and said, “I want Peter Capaldi.” And he said, “Oh that’s a good choice.” And I said, “But he’s worried that if he does The Infinite Quest, you’ll never employ him on ‘proper real-life’ Doctor Who.” And he said, “Oh God no; tell him, it’ll make no difference at all, but what a good idea Peter Capaldi would be.” As it is, Capaldi wasn’t able to do The Infinite Quest, but he was then able to do The Fires of Pompeii, and I think that was because, not that I’d suggested him, but I’d put that name out there and suddenly I think, three or four months later Russell thought, ‘Ah, yes, Peter Capaldi, we know he’d do it, he’d be brilliant.’ And then of course he did Torchwood, and now look where he is.
And I just wish he’d done The Infinite Quest, because I could say I got there first! That would have been nice.
A bit like David Tennant being in Scream of the Shalka...
Pfft to that. I’ve been using him in Big Finish years before that! Scream of the Shalka, ha! Do you know, I’ve never seen it. I had to do some quiz questions about it last week for the quiz up here, and I’ve never seen it so I had to try and find it on the internet. I’m quite looking forward to the DVD coming out, because then for me it’ll be “new” Doctor Who that I’ve not encountered before.
Is it a shame that Real Time hasn’t made it onto DVD?
I was disappointed that it didn’t end up on Shada, I thought it would. And I would live in hope that if they ever do another sort of Revisitation of a Colin story, it could have snuck its way on there. It is disappointing that it’s now the only piece of sort of BBC Doctor Who that hasn’t been given the DVD treatment.
Of course, Death Comes to Time was something entirely different...
What I’d be interested to see is what they do with Shalka, because what I’d like to see is if Shalka goes down really well, I’d love them to redo The Infinite Quest and Dreamland, and put them out properly with commentaries, and treat them like they’re part of the range like they have with Shalka. Seems odd that they never did. They always treated them as if they were a sort of a second-rate, throwaway little DVD that had to go out under the Children’s imprint and everything. We’ve done loads of commentaries at conventions and things, and I think you could sit down and do a really good commentary for Dreamland now; Phil and I would have a ball doing that. Yeah, I was disappointed really, that Dreamland and The Infinite Quest were kind of almost put out with embarrassment by 2|entertain, and now they’ve done this marvellous thing with Shalka, which is great and exactly how it should be done, but I do look at Dreamland and The Infinite Quest and think, ‘Well I’m sorry, but even just on a pure animation level – forget the story side of it, but on a pure animation level – they’re both streets ahead of Shalka, so they deserve a bit more treatment; I mean, stick them out as a double-pack or something or whatever, but it’d be nice to give them a bit of a Revisitation as well.
I don’t suppose they like to treat the new series stuff “retrospectively”, as they do with the classic series.
Yeah, it’s weird isn’t it? Considering it’s going to be ten years old quite soon.
And I guess with DVD showing signs of starting to wind down, the window to do it is shortening.
Although you know what? I’ll say this: I don’t think DVD’s going to die soon. I think people do like “physical”; I don’t think Blu-ray will usurp it completely. I think the two will co-exist quite happily. I don’t think download of video material will replace DVDs with the general public; I’m always disappointed it’s done it with music, but I think music is a lot more disposable, and it’s in bite-sized chunks, so you can download a three-minute single. But I think no one is going to want to spend their entire life downloading movies and downloading TV series. Lots of people do, but I think as a rule of thumb, people will always want to hang onto a solid thing. If you’re going to pay more than five quid for something, actually, you don’t want to pay five quid for a load of electrons floating in the air. I think DVD won’t go away, so if anyone does ever find any more missing stories, then I think there’ll always be a home for them on DVD. I don’t think anyone’s going to turn round and say, “Oh, we can’t do that, it’s old technology.”
Although budgets for extras might be tightened, as we’re seeing with the New Series DVDs and their reduced commentaries.
Shame isn’t it? I wish they had more commentaries certainly. But you’re paying for people to come in for a day and work. So you’ve got the studio to pay for, you’ve got a producer to pay for, you’ve got a technician to record it, you’ve got Toby , and you’ve got between three and four or five, six actors; all of them have to be paid quite a lot of money, because it’s their jobs, so I can imagine that is probably the most expensive extra.