Starburst Magazine caught up with Steve Lyons to discuss his career as a writer. His first book, The Red Dwarf Programme Guide, was published in 1993 and twenty years ago his first Doctor Who novel came out in January 1994.
Starburst: Did you always intend to become a writer? Was it your interest in TV shows such as Red Dwarf and Doctor Who that led you to start writing or was it always an ambition?
Steve Lyons: I always wanted to be a writer, and I always wanted to write the things I loved. So, when I was a kid, I wanted to write books about kids solving mysteries and unmasking fake ghosts. Later on, it was comic books and, yes, Doctor Who, of course. I’ve no idea where that ambition came from, it was just always there. I think the first time I sent a book to a publisher was when I was twelve.
Your first Doctor Who novel Conundrum came out in 1994 – how did that come about and how did you find the writing?
I was sending unsolicited submissions to Peter Darvill-Evans at Virgin Publishing – which is how most of the writers of the New Adventures got started. He’d rejected my first three attempts – although he had let me co-write The Red Dwarf Programme Guide in the meantime – and I had pretty much given up trying. Then, the publishing frequency of the New Adventures was increased, and Peter needed ideas in a hurry. He wrote to his existing writers, but also to the authors of the ‘most promising’ rejected submissions, which included me. That was a great ego-boost, and it gave me the incentive to pull a fourth idea together. By then, I’d read more of the early New Adventures, and I think I just had a better idea of what Peter was looking for, because this time I made it into print.
I had a great time writing Conundrum, because it was my first novel, I was realising my life’s dream, and that kept me from thinking about what hard work it actually was. I was also given six or seven months to write it, which meant I could take my time and have fun and experiment a little, trying to find my writing style. I wrote the book completely out of sequence, just tackling scenes as the ideas came to me, which isn’t something I would do now.
Since Conundrum you have had many more Doctor Who novels published; which is your favourite Doctor and TARDIS crew to write for and why?
I love writing the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie, because I’m very fond of their era of the TV series, but also because they all have very distinctive voices which is great for audio especially. I also like writing characters that were maybe sold a bit short on TV, which would include the Sixth Doctor and Mel. Really, though, I just enjoy having a variety of Doctors, companions and types of story to choose from. It keeps Doctor Who fresh for me, even after having written so much of it.
You wrote The Fires of Vulcan for Big Finish which was released in 2000. Since then you’ve written many fans’ favourite episodes (mine included) such as Colditz, Blood of the Daleks and Architects of History – how do you feel when your stories are still passionately discussed many years after their release?
I think it’s fantastic, and I spend way too much time lurking on fan websites to see what they’re saying about me! I don’t get that sort of feedback from my other writing – not to the same extent, anyway, and with some projects there’s been nothing at all – and it’s one of the things that keeps bringing me back to the Doctor Who universe.
You were the first writer to write for both Lucie Miller – how do you feel when the character then evolves? Are you interested in how they turn out or are you happy to see them move on?
Well, Lucie is really Alan Barnes’s character, she was fully formed before I met her. So, although I got to write her first, I’ve never felt any particular ownership over her.
Klein is different, she is very much my creation and I’m not really sure yet how I feel about her going her own way without me. On the one hand, it’s flattering that one of my characters has been picked up by other writers and her story continued. But then, I hear about major changes being made to Klein’s background, without my being involved or consulted, and that just feels wrong. I haven’t heard the latest Klein stories yet, I probably should.
Klein fascinates a lot of fans and has now appeared in eight separate Big Finish releases. What do you think the appeal is?
A lot of it is in Tracey Childs’ performance, of course. We all just melted in the studio when we first heard her playing the character in Colditz. Otherwise, what I like about Klein is her total self-assurance and the fact that she challenges the Doctor and his morality with cold, hard logic. And, actually, she thinks a lot like him – specifically, like the manipulative Seventh Doctor of the New Adventures – it’s just that she takes everything a bit further.
November 2013 saw the release of the Blake’s 7 Liberator Chronicles Volume 6 in which you wrote Jenna’s Story. Was this a gap in the show that you always wanted to explore? Jenna gets some very bleak treatment in this story – was that always the intention or did the story just write itself? How well defined do you think the TV show left Jenna’s character given how early she left?
I’d never thought about exploring Jenna’s fate before – but when I was asked to do it, of course I jumped at the chance. When you write a lot of ‘missing episodes’ of TV series, set between other episodes, you rarely get the chance to decide the fate of one of the series’ stars.
I think we all knew from the beginning that Jenna had to die – I think it would have been a betrayal of that brilliant final TV episode to have saved her – and so, ‘Jenna’s Story’ was always going to be taking us towards that inevitable end and was always going to be bleak because of that. I did skip a year or so in Jenna’s life, though, so maybe she had a bit of fun during that time…
I think Jenna’s character was pretty well-defined at the beginning of Blake’s 7 – but then, she seemed to be relegated to a back-up role in most episodes and didn’t get many chances to shine. I didn’t feel I had to redefine her at all for ‘Jenna’s Story’, it was more a case of bringing out the character that we always knew was there but rarely saw.
Of all your Big Finish Audios which is your favourite , which was most challenging to write and which was most enjoyable to write and why?
The story of which I’m proudest would be The Architects of History, because it stars my companion and my monsters – the Selachians, from the BBC Doctor Who novels – and because it’s the culmination of a story arc that I plotted and therefore the only chance I’ve had to write a big ‘season finale’. Also, I’m proud of it because it was on the radio, and because people seemed to like it!
The most challenging one to write was The Fires of Vulcan, just because I was new to the audio format and it took a while to get used to it, and the most enjoyable one was Resistance because Anneke Wills was playing the part of Polly for the first time in over forty years and I was writing it! I also loved writing Sapphire & Steel, and I think my actual best Big Finish script might be my second story in that series, Perfect Day.
You mentioned Sapphire and Steel and you’ve also written stories for The Tomorrow People and, with Chris Howarth, books about Blackadder and Star Trek. Would it be fair to say you watch rather a lot of cult television? Is there a show you’d like to write for that you haven’t yet?
I would love to write for Sliders, I just think it had the best format for a science-fiction series ever. Farscape would be brilliant too. Or if any publishers want to continue Prisoner: Cell Block H in book form, here I am…
With 2014 just begun what can we look forward to?
Good question! I recently wrote an Eleventh Doctor Who audiobook, The Last Frontier, which should have been out in January – but the publishers, AudioGO, went under and I don’t know what’s happening with that now. I’m hoping that the new stewards of BBC Audiobooks will salvage it, not least because it features the Doctor’s first ever visit to Salford.
Otherwise – I have more Blake’s 7 coming up this year and a Warhammer novel and audio. Doctor Who-wise, I’m a regular on the Doctor Who Adventures comic strip, which is the best job in the world, and I’ve written one of Big Finish’s upcoming Early Adventures, for the usual suspects of the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie again.
And finally, if you had the choice between travelling in the TARDIS or on the Liberator which would you pick?
It has to be the TARDIS, doesn’t it? So many more places and times to go and at least the outside chance that some of them won’t be deadly. Although, in fact, I probably would be killed by monsters as soon as I stepped out of the door, so I’m probably better off staying at home.
Steve, thanks very much for taking the time to answer a few questions and we look forward to hearing your next audios.