Starburst caught up with Big Finish writer Matt Fitton to talk about his many 2013 releases and his approach to writing for a large range of Doctors and companions...
STARBURST: Matt, your name is on a lot of Big Finish titles this year – that must make you feel like you’ve arrived given your first release (A Most Excellent Match on the Recorded Time collection) only appeared in August 2011 under two years ago?
Matt: Yes… although I’m a little disappointed not to have anything coming out between April and June… Actually it’s fantastic to play such a part in the anniversary year. I’m thrilled that I get the chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and just hope people are enjoying the stories. I’m certainly enjoying making them up!
Let’s take the titles that have already been released this year – The Wrong Doctors and Seeds of War; these are both Sixth Doctor and Mel stories, how did you find writing for Mel? Did you base her just on the ‘Trial of a Timelord’ episodes or did you include her other appearances for Big Finish?
Mel is such a gift, a classic companion who perfectly complements the Sixth Doctor. When I got the brief to bring her back, I re-watched her ‘Trial’ episodes and re-listened to her Big Finish tales. ‘Catch-1782’ is a fantastic Mel story. And of course not forgetting her novel appearances; it’s interesting how many of Mel’s adventures hinge on temporal anomalies: timeslips, Chronovores, alternate realities. Not to mention the whopper of her actual arrival in the show: very timey-wimey, but accidentally so, and hardly capitalised on at all. So I decided to make it part of the plot for ‘The Wrong Doctors’ – that she’s in some way a flame to the parasitic ‘moths’ of the vortex, they can sense her timeline tangling with itself.
As for her character, I’ve said elsewhere that I think the key to Mel is this moral steel at her core. It’s why Sixie likes her so much, and it’s why she’s got complete faith in him. Bonnie plays it so well, with such conviction. It was a privilege to see her at work in the studio: nailing it perfectly every time.
Do you make a point of visiting the studio for recording and does meeting the actors help you write for them?
I always try to get to the studio. I mean, once it reaches that stage I do think the writer’s job is done and you put your trust in the director and the actors. So I don’t really need to be there. But it’s nice to be on hand in case of any tweaks or suggestions, and it’s lovely that Ken, Lisa, Barnaby and Nick have all invited me along. Just to sit in that green room and hear the tales, eat the lunches…
In terms of writing for specific actors, apart from the regulars (whose voices have lived in my head for years), you don’t really know who you’re going to get. But actually, I think being in studio helps me learn about writing for actors in general; make the dialogue flow, make it say-able, and just tell the story.
July sees the second ‘Counter Measures’ boxset on which you’ve written the first story ‘Manhunt’. Can you tell us anything about that and also does this boxset carry on immediately from the first? How did you find writing this compared to ‘Artificial Intelligence’ in the first boxset?
The process of writing the first series was fascinating: discovering this world; inventing it; working out the limits of what we could and couldn’t do. What we wanted to be able to do. ‘Manhunt’ picks up some time after the first series, and… I can’t really say any more than that! We’ve a fantastic guest cast joining our regulars for this second series. And we think it really builds on what we established in the first. The production team were all really happy with how the stories worked out, and I can’t wait to hear the result.
August gives us the intriguingly named Starlight Robbery which is a Seventh Doctor story also featuring Klein. Can you tell us anything about this year’s Seventh Doctor trilogy and this story in particular?
Klein is back! And she’s got an assistant of her own. This is the Elizabeth Klein we met in ‘Dominion’, working for UNIT sometime in the 1980s. At the end of that story, the Doctor leaves her a space-time telegraph. He’s obviously open to meeting her again. But how exactly that will play out, you’ll have to wait and see. As for my story, the second in the trilogy, I have Sontarans, which is brilliant. I also have Garundel, the slippery amphibian Urodelian who played such a pivotal role in the Doctor’s fate in Black and White – though you can come to this story without knowing anything about either alien race. I was so pleased to be asked to bring Garundel back and knowing how good Stuart Milligan is at playing him, I really felt confident being able to let rip with him in the new story.
You add to your tally of Doctors with September’s Lost Story ‘The Dark Planet’; a Vicki and Ian story whose original storyline (I believe) included a twin planet to Earth (as later used in ‘Tenth Planet’). I assume you have moved this on from that setup?
I’ve already ticked off the First Doctor in Return of The Rocket Men, though Dark Planet was actually written – and recorded – much earlier than that one. It was great fun to write dialogue for Hartnell’s Doctor; I couldn’t wait to get started. There’s an early scene in the TARDIS with Barbara that I wrote first, in which he’s grand and imperious, mischievous and funny – all the things I love about him.
I’ve read the thing about a twin planet elsewhere, but essentially the documents I had to go on were those that were reproduced in a recent issue of ‘Nothing at the End of the Lane’. Brian Hayles had written a 2-page outline and synopsis of a few paragraphs per episode. This is basically a planet where light and shadow are at war. I tried to stick as closely as I could to that – with some changes for practical reasons given the narrators we had. It’s essentially a very visual story, which I had to translate to audio. I took as my template something like The Web Planet: a very alien, strange environment where the TARDIS crew encounter life-forms like nothing they’ve seen before. And as a Lost Story, I tried to imagine how it might have been realised on screen: the number of sets, how the effects might have worked, the props and costumes. It’s astonishing what they could achieve, given the budget William Russell mentions in the interviews on his ‘Doctor Who and the Zarbi’ reading! But the ambition of that era was boundless, and hopefully The Dark Planet is an example of what they might have tried to do.
Further afield you have two more stories to appear: the final Destiny of The Doctor story called the ‘Time Machine’ which will feature the Eleventh Doctor and also early next year a story in the Big Finish Quadrigger Stoyn Companion Chronicles trilogy, this being the Fourth Doctor story and featuring Lalla Ward’s Romana in the intriguingly named ‘Luna Romana’. Can you share anything on either of those? How do you find the responsibility of concluding series which are likely to receive a lot of fan attention?
As I said before, as a lifelong fan, to be writing stories in Who’s anniversary year is a massive thrill for me. I think you just write the best story that you can every time – regardless of whether it’s a special occasion or not. Though, having said that, these two I’m very happy with: both are finales and so both have a weight of expectation. But I think that gives you licence to try and do something big, something fun. I like solving puzzles, and to write a finale can be in a way a puzzle of its own. Tie up what’s come before, but stand alone as a story in its own right. I’ve tried to get the balance right.
You’re reliant on so many other aspects of direction, acting, sound design and music to create the end result – but with Big Finish I’ve absolute trust in all of those elements and I haven’t been disappointed yet. You can only do your best and put it out there. If people like it, that’s a bonus.
The list continues (you’ve been busy); can you tell us anything about ‘Dark Eyes 2’? Who persuaded Nick to share his creation?
I dropped a few hints here and there as I worked with Nick Briggs on ‘The Wrong Doctors’ and ‘Seeds of War’ that if anything ever came up, I would love to write some Eighth Doctor. I must have worn him down, as he fairly quickly came back to ask me to work with him and Alan Barnes on ‘Dark Eyes 2’.
I love the Eighth Doctor; there was a time in the noughties when his were the only on-going new adventures with Big Finish and the BBC books. We had the eras with Charley and C’Rizz, Fitz, Sam, Compassion, Anji and Trix – those were the Doctor’s on-going adventures, and for a while, it looked like that would be all we’d ever get. Then after Who came back to TV we got the Lucie Miller series, which is just a fantastic run of stories, and she is one of my favourite companions in any media. But it still means the Eighth Doctor’s era is open-ended. We’ve no idea what he’s been through by the time he gets to regenerate.
And then we had a new start last year in ‘Dark Eyes’, which is a rollercoaster ride. It’s a story told almost totally alongside the Doctor and his companion, from their perspective. And it’s been immensely popular. Paul McGann just sounds so energised, carrying his Doctor forward into a whole new era alongside Ruth Bradley as Molly O’Sullivan. I’m hugely excited to be picking that story up. Will Molly be back? Are the Daleks in it? Whose eyes are dark? Stay tuned to find out…
Have you been asked to be involved in the Charley spin-off or is it ‘no comment’?
But if I say ‘no comment’ does that imply anything? I have heard whispers of what might be happening with this. I know Nick is keen to do it, and it has been long-anticipated. But, if there were anything that could be said at this stage, you would know!
Finally, you held a writer’s workshop at the recent Tenth Planets event Big Finish Day 3. I assume that was your idea – how did you find it, did it meet your expectations and will you do it again?
Actually, David Richardson asked me to do it. After Simon Guerrier’s workshop had been so successful at the event in 2012, they were keen to do something again. I do feel a bit of a fraud fronting it with only a few years under my belt, but there must have been around a century’s worth of writing experience in that room! (Huge thanks to Simon Guerrier, Andrew Smith, Mark Wright, Cavan Scott, Nev Fountain, Joe Lidster, Peter Anghelides, John Dorney and Andy Lane.) I’d happily do it again. The thing is, once you get a few writers in a room, you can’t really shut them up. We find it fascinating to hear how others work, because in general writing is such a solitary activity. I know there are the planning stages, the meetings, the notes, and we all like to get together when we can (which is actually pretty rare – quite a few writers I chatted to for the first time myself at Big Finish Day 3). But when it comes down to it, it’s that blank page and you. And there are as many ways to fill it as there are writers.
I know that I find the stories and anecdotes that come from those years of experience to be invaluable for learning lessons. I just hope it’s the same for others who are serious about putting pen to paper. The best possible advice about writing is just to do it. Write. And be read. And write better. Repeat.