Interviews with Nick Briggs, Alan Barnes and Niky Wardley as they discuss their work on the Eighth Doctor Adventures Series Four...
What was the thinking behind the long break between Death in Blackpool and Situation Vacant? Was it scheduling issues? Or should this Christmas story be considered a one off between seasons?
We may have given other, more politic answers before, but I'll be honest... It's all a matter of subscription packages and discounts for pre-orders, which help us a lot when it comes to having money coming in so that we can afford to make the productions in the first place. Death in Blackpool was conceived as a one-off Xmas special. But then it was pointed out that its sales would suffer if it wasn't attached to a subscription deal... and by then it was already too late to include it in the third season's subscription. So we attached it to the fourth season. Very dull answer, I know.
Death in Blackpool has some startling drama – the ending in particular broke my heart. Was it always the intention to return the to Aunty Pat storyline to write Lucie out of the series?
I'm glad you like that ending, I wrote that! Well, I rewrote it a little. Alan did a fantastic job on this. It was his idea to return to the Aunty Pat storyline, simply because in Paul Magrs's last script with Aunty Pat in, the Doctor had colluded in the deception of Lucie... and Alan felt we couldn't just leave that hanging. He was right! And we couldn't just deal with it in some perfunctory, off hand way. We needed to deal with a tricky issue like this with a full story. A story with big emotional ramifications that would lead to the apparent leaving of a companion. We always knew we'd bring Lucie back, though. But we wanted that vibe of an emotional break-up, where Lucie just couldn't stomach the lifestyle any more. We knew that we then wanted to go on to have Lucie start to miss it and want to go back to it... with dire consequences.
There was a lot of fun going on in Situation Vacant with its Apprentice style approach to choosing a new companion. What attract you to Niky Wardley as Sheridan Smith’s replacement?
We'd actually seen Niky before for another character, as Peter Davison had recommended her to us, I think. That didn't work out. But we knew we wanted to work with her, so when Tamsin came up, we thought, 'Ah, this is the one for Niky!' We felt very bad about apparently 'replacing' Lucie. We all loved Lucie so much, so it felt a bit like we were being unfaithful.
Looking at the season as a whole it is unusual in its approach to the companions. Firstly Lucie leaves, Tamsin then joins unexpectedly, then they swap places in Resurrection of Mars and then after a lovely spot of Christmas Lucie leaves again! Did you plot this season out as a whole as a sort of roller coaster ride for the Doctor or did it develop naturally as the scripts came in?
Oh, it was plotted, that's for sure. What you describe is almost exactly the broad outline we made from the start of planning season four. The only difference in the execution was that we did originally have Lucie appear at the end of Situation Vacant, getting the job from the Monk. But we thought that would overshadow Tamsin unfairly. We wanted people to feel for sure that Lucie was gone and Tamsin was the new girl who was going to stay. It worked, and people loved her.
Graeme Garden brings The Meddling Monk to life with real flair. How did you come to cast him?
I think that was Barnaby Edwards's suggestion. He'd worked with Graeme before, of course. And I think he was spot on. Graeme's a really lovely chap. Quite reserved, but absolutely hilarious. Takes it all very seriously, though.
How do you think Tamsin fared as a companion?
Well, I think Niky really established the character very quickly. Tamsin's journey in the series, as we planned it, didn't give her a lot to hang on to. She's with the Doctor for two stories, and then she falls out with him quite badly. I think Niky was very good at being in the moment and not foreshadowing that split-up, so when it happened, it was quite shocking. From the point of view of working with Niky, it's a great shame she was with the Doctor for such a short time in this series, because she was so good and such a lovely person. I saw her last weekend at a convention and was reminded of just how delightful she is. We look forward to working with her in the future.
Susan takes on a very important role as the season develops. What was the motive behind bringing her character back? Is hard to control the father and son McGann team in the studio?
The return of Susan came about when we were looking for a special subscriber-only story. Alan came up with the basic idea of An Earthly Child and Marc Platt ran with that. And it all worked out rather well. Once we'd added that into the mix, it sort of became inevitable that we'd have to go back to it. It's like Susan and Alex suddenly came into the Eighth Doctor's life... and he couldn't quite let go of them.
Jake and Paul are very professional in the studio. I think the only difference is that Paul comes into the control room when Jake is doing scenes and beams in that proud dad sort of way. It's rather touching.
You’ve got everybody playing to their strengths in this season – Alan Barnes at his quirky best, Jonny Morris writing a big, bold two parter, Marc Platt acing the characters, Eddie Robson entertaining us like mad and a great slice of historical fun from Barnaby Edwards. Do you feel this is the strongest run of stories you have produced in the EDA range?
I think they all have their strengths, but yes, I do feel we learn more every time and we aim to make it better. Wouldn't be much point aiming to make it worse, would it? But yeah, I really do feel, for all the reasons you mention, that we have delivered something especially strong this time.
You wrote the climactic two parter that finishes off the entire eighth Doctor Series – did you feel the pressure to do justice to all of the characters involved? How did you approach writing this two parter? Was the episode Lucie Miller the chance to give Sheridan Smith her own ‘Turn Left’?
There's always pressure to get it right. And I suppose I did set myself a difficult, pivotal moment to write. But as I've said many times before, it's those pivotal moments that I love in Doctor Who... so getting to write them in the audio series is a special treat for me. I had all the 'research' in front of me in the form of all the stories I'd worked on with the Eighth Doctor. And I knew I wanted a story that was about the characters. It's quite an intense, intimate piece, with a huge, noisy backdrop.
I approached writing it by having big discussions with Alan about where we wanted it to end up. Once we'd decided that, I jotted down some ideas based on Alan's initial thought of, 'Lucie phones up and it turns out the bloomin' Daleks have invaded again!' That's all I had. I initially had some ideas about the Monk running a kind of time-space tourist service, which involved actually dumping people on a planet conquered by Daleks. But that seemed too frivolous, and Alan and I agreed on the idea of making the backdrop as simple and as bleak as possible. As I started to write the storyline, we quickly decided that the first story would be Lucie's story. We'd already done an almost-solo Lucie episode with Sisters of the Flame, and it was clear that Sheridan could really fly in a Lucie-centric episode. As for the second story... well, it's not out yet!
Who is going to die? (hahaha! You can’t blame me for trying!).
I can't blame you, no. Perhaps no one will die. Or maybe they all will. Or maybe... I'm just winding you up, sorry. Cue evil laugh... Mwahahaa!
Looking back over the four series of the Eighth Doctor Adventures how would you sum up the overall experience? Do you have any absolute favourites and some that you wished had turned out better?
It's been really fantastic. I'm currently working on the Eighth Doctor trilogy for the main range this year, so I'm realizing that it's almost the same thing again! The fun never stops. But these Eighth Doctor stories were great to work on. They taught us a new approach to Big Finish, which filtered through into the way we did everything from then on. It was a new beginning for Big Finish based on far more detailed attention to the scripts and casting. It set the template for us. As for favourites...ooh, I don't know. I don't do favourites. I'm very proud of the Sisters of the Flame and Vengeance of Morbius season ending - despite the viciously unfair review from your website! But them's the breaks, everyone's entitled to their views. I loved Human Resources and Grand Theft Cosmos, great Eddie Robson scripts. And Max Warp! Lovely bit of Johnny Morris nonsense there, brilliantly done. If I had to name one that I felt didn't really work properly, I guess it has to be Dead London... but there are all sorts of bits of that that I love. It had a bit of a troubled post-production period, with me vetoing a drum-and-base score... The composer wasn't very happy with me when I asked him to go away and do it all again. But I think he did a great job in the end. I thought The Zygon That Fell To Earth was a bit too jokey at the beginning... But I'm being really picky here, and to be fair, I was the one who thought it was a good idea to call it 'Trevor of the Zygons' to start with! So clearly, I was in a daft mood! But I actually loved all of the stories. And, of course, I guess I'm most proud of the two-part finale. I hope you enjoy the ending... although 'enjoy' might not be the right word.
Having written Storm Warning, Neverland, Zagreus and The Next Life for the main range of eighth Doctor stories what made you step back from being a writer and script edit the new series of eighth Doctor Adventures?
I was asked to!
Death in Blackpool is a story that really means a lot to me for some very personal reasons. What was your motivation behind providing a much more emotional, less frivolous Christmas special?
Jason Haigh-Ellery asked for a Christmas Special. I was a bit aghast, actually – I felt that Christmas Specials really were the province of the New Series, and we were on a hiding to nothing trying to compete. But then I recalled seeing the EastEnders cliffhanger just before one of the Doctor Who specials, which was something incredibly tawdry – someone had been shagging their son’s girlfriend – and thought, ‘Well, if THAT qualifies as a Christmas Special…’ So the intention was to do something quite low-key and domestic, to provide a total contrast to the New Series. Plus, we had a ‘public secret’ lurking in Zygon Who Fell To Earth, which was perfect to blow in a soap-type story, albeit one with a twist.
What was the reason for writing out Lucie in such a bold way?
I just felt it had to be something personal, and probably quite small, that would cause her to go. Galaxies shattering she can take in her stride, but loyalty is everything to someone like Lucie.
Were you pleased with the overall result?
Yeah – I think I made a fair fist of something well outside my comfort zone. I actually wrote it in a bit of a frenzy – not, for once, because I was running late (actually, it was the first of the Season Three scripts to be written!) – just because I was so desperate to get it out onto the page. I’m certainly pleased that it’s brave enough to tell the truth, that Christmas is horrible for lots of people. It’s quite a ‘true’ play, I think.
Do you enjoy writing more character based audios or is love more for plot heavy stories such as those in the Gallifrey range?
Oh, I don’t have a preferred style – I’ll try anything once. I think the only archetypal DW adventure I haven’t yet done is a UNIT-style invasion of Earth.
Situation Vacant was an inspired idea to have an Apprentice style approach to finding the Doctor a companion. How did you guys come up with this wonderfully insane notion?
Jason had the idea of doing a ‘Companion Idol’ sort of gimmick. We decided that was impractical, but that got me thinking of literally auditioning the new companion – with the Doctor choosing his next sidekick from a list of candidates. So we came up with spoofing The Apprentice, because there’s a nice dramatic structure inherent in the format – tasks to perform, firings, that sort of thing. Although the title was mine, I think, Eddie Robson picked that up and really ran with it. He’s so good at authentically modern pieces – Human Resources, The Condemned, The Eight Truths…
When looking a list of potential new companions was Tamsin/Niky Wardley always your first option?
Tamsin was entirely mine: I wrote a biography and gave it to Eddie. She was always going to be the first to be fired, because when the Doctor sacks her, he’s not sacking the real her. I thought that was a nice way of subverting expectations, really. Eddie added in the character of the hotel receptionist, who was fantastic – the only one the Doctor really wants is the one who’s got far too much sense to take it!
Nevermore was brilliant new territory for Doctor Who, Poe-inspired nightmarish imagery in a reasonably familiar SF plot. Are you a big reader of Poe yourself or did you have brush up for the purposes of writing this story?
I brushed up. Poe’s stories are kind of vignettes, really – there isn’t much that’s suitable for a full-length pastiche, so I came up with the idea of doing not ONE of the stories, but ALL of them…! The one thing that is extensively referenced is the Universal Pictures version of The Black Cat, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi – hence the war criminal elements, the modernist house and so on. LOVE that film.
What did you want Tamsin to have to go through in this story, her debut adventure in the TARDIS?
Originally I asked Steven Hall to take the second slot – we were going to do a ‘Doctor Who values versus Star Trek values’ sort of thing, which I later read Russell T hadn’t got round to doing, either! But Steve had to drop out, so I had to pull something out of my own bottom drawer. But yeah, a note of ‘it’s not always going to be a barrel of laughs’ seemed appropriate – and she actually gets buried alive in the course of the story: cunning foreshadowing of her eventual death there, which no-one spotted!
You must have been impressed with the astonishing cast assembled to bring the story to life – did you have a particular favourite?
Yeah, it was an embarrassment of riches. Fenella Woolgar, I thought, was exceptional, considering she arrived at the studio having been sent the wrong script by her agent – she had to read Nevermore at super-fast speed and wing it, basically. And the character was far from straightforward!
When it comes to your own scripts do you script edit them yourself or does somebody else step into that role?
Nick and whoever’s directing always give me notes, which is only right and proper. It’s not always healthy to be given too much latitude: with Nevermore, I slightly regret adding in the stuff about the Monk having been involved in the past – I think it overcomplicated an already highly involved back-story. I think script editor me would probably have ordered another writer to lose it. Oh well.
Clearly the Monk has been weaved into the season very closely. Why this particular rogue Time Lord to screw up the Doctor’s life in the last season of eighth Doctor adventures?
I can’t remember who first suggested doing the Monk – it might well have been Barney.
A rare script from Barnaby Edwards here who has spent much of these four seasons in the director’s chair. What strengths do you think he brings as a writer?
Other than perfectly executed scripts that I won’t ever have to rewrite… Barney’s a genuine polymath, he knows a little about almost everything. It really shows in his scripts, which are always so well-read one doesn’t dare challenge anything!
How well do you think Lucie’s involvement in this story was hidden?
A brand new approach to storytelling from Jonathan Morris, from comedy to a gripping moral dilemma of the sort Doctor Who often shies away from. Was this a conscious decision to fool the audience into thinking this would be another comic gem and turning it on a sixpence and having it be an emotional roller coaster for the Doctor and Tamsin? Was Tamsin always due to depart in this story? From The Apprentice to Companion Swap, you certainly couldn’t predict the twists and turns in this story. Was that a deliberate theme throughout this season after three years of the same Doctor and companion pairing?
Yes, the ‘companion swap’ was entirely my idea, once it had been decided that Lucie was coming back. Jonny had a really difficult brief – nasty, ignoble Ice Warriors; Deimos; the Monk; the return of Lucie; and the swap – and pulled it all off very stylishly. He found a moral dimension to the story I’d not even imagined.
Marc Platt delivers an altogether different Christmas special, bringing together all of the special people in the Doctor’s life before the shit hits the fan at the end of the season. Was this deliberately supposed to be a bit of breather before the big revelations to come? Why bring back Susan and Alex?
Why not? I liked the idea that the Doctor’s so emotionally illiterate, he actually thinks that after ruining Lucie’s family Christmas he can make amends by making her a gift of his own dysfunctional family. But again, it was me thinking, ‘What other sort of Christmas Specials can we do, and not tread on Cardiff’s toes?’ In this case, it wasn’t EastEnders, but The Royle Family – I find it genuinely incredible that people might actually WANT to watch that at Christmas, it seems completely perverse. So, four people in the TARDIS, and nothing much happens…! Only EVERYTHING does, of course. I loved Marc’s idea that the Doctor keeps all his old companions’ bedrooms preserved in storage – that’s so creepy, it’s definitely on the Norman Bates axis…!
Eddie Robson returns to the season clever and bubbly Prison of the Sun. This story has been criticised for lacking the wham bam twists of the other stories of the season – was it a deliberate decision to have a fairly standard Doctor Who plot before the massive climax to suggest business as usual?
Is it? The story’s full of twists!
From the Doctor’s point of view he has been away from Lucie for many years now – did you want to drive home that he has moved on with his life as well before returning to save her life in Lucie Miller?
Sort of… it was all a bit of a happy accident, really. Originally, Daphne was just an android, but we ended up being able to have Sheridan for a day more than expected. So I came up with the idea of the Doctor imprinting Lucie’s personality onto Daphne, which opened up a whole world of weirdness! Again, it’s quite creepy, isn’t it? I think the Eighth Doctor in particular gets away with some very peculiar things sometimes…
The hugely affecting climax was the subject of much speculation – did you guys choose the title of To the Death to whet the appetites of who would be biting the dust? Was it a conscious decision to fit the Daleks as the villains in the final EDA just as they starred in his debut?
With its Dalek Invasion of Earth trappings, did you want to make this story as bleak as possible?
Yes. At one point, Nick and I were talking about the film ‘Defiance’, about Jewish resistance groups in WWII. That’s not a barrel of laughs, either…!
How did you choose who was to die?
Everyone we could kill, we did – the only reason that Susan and the Monk survived is because they’re BBC copyright characters, and we’re not allowed to kill them. But yes, from the start we wanted it to be a total bloodbath.
Will the tragic events of this story be followed up substantially in the next eighth Doctor story?
It will be followed up, yes. But if the EDAs have shown anything, not necessarily in the way that anyone will expect…!
How would you sum up your experiences of working on this range?
Oh, the EDAs are the best thing I’ve been a part of at Big Finish. I was in mourning when Nick phoned me up to say they were coming to an end, in that format at least. But it won’t be the end, of course. Oh dear me, no…!
What attracts you to working on audio? What advantages/disadvantages are there in working in that medium?
They asked me! Which is always nice! Three or four years ago they asked me and kept me in mind and then when they were looking for a new assistant my name came up again. I haven’t worked in audio like this before but I have voiced a cartoon but it is lovely being in separate booths in the studios – it is very small so it is a very intimate experience and we all get along so well.
Were you told the direction that Tamsin was going to go in or did you only discover when when the scripts arrived?
I had no clue – it was literally read the scripts and couldn’t believe what they had done. The last ones – which I’m guessing you haven’t heard yet – I read and thought…wow!
Tamsin is certainly seems like a feisty character - she feels strong enough about the Doctor's decisions to turn on him and leave. Did you like this side of her character? Tamsin is different from the traditional companion role in that she doesn't accept the Doctor's decisions and chooses to leave him because of them. It is more interesting to play a character who is at odds with the hero, despite initially being a friend?
I really understood her character. When we went to Invasion I was thinking about the decisions that Tamsin had made and realised that I had really clicked with the material. Tamsin hasn’t known the Doctor for long and cannot understand why the Doctor would allow something so awful to happen just because her friend is down there – especially since somebody else has just died and he wouldn’t save him but he would risk all for Lucie. It was a great script, really well written to focus on the dilemmas. It really liked doing that one because you could see the Doctor and Tamsin working together well at the beginning and then it took a complete turn and she fought for what she considered to be right.
How aware/interested were you in Doctor Who before you took on the role of Tamsin? Did you feel you had big shoes to fill stepping into the role of a new companion?
You can’t escape Doctor Who; it is huge at the moment. Obviously I was aware of the series but I didn’t realise that Big Finish made these audio books which is odd because Sheridan is a close friend of mine and she been working on them for years! I didn’t realise how huge the Big Finish following was so I wasn’t nervous about doing it – what I have come to realise since is that Sheridan and Paul were so popular and then I just turn up and blunder in completely unaware! It was so much fun doing the first story – I got the job as assistant by default!
Graeme Garden, Paul McGann, Sheridan Smith - what was it like working in the studio with these guys?
So lovely, it’s a tiny studio as I said so we have to get on well! The whole thing is so well run though, they have been doing this for so long and they know exactly how to get what they want. And the catering! The best catering I have ever had! Seriously that guy is a marvel! You wait in a little waiting room and get chatting and then when you are in the studio you are so close to the other actors – it is great fun.
What are you working on at the moment? Can we expect to hear more from you in Big Finish?
No. Short answer! They haven’t asked me yet!
I’m working on something little at the moment – I’m five months pregnant. Other than that I have just finished filming a new comedy series about a middle class family in Manchester. It hasn’t got a title yet but in America it was called Grounded for Life but they have decided not to go with that title. Catherine Tate is a dear friend, I don’t know when but I will work with her until the end of my days. Hopefully she will find something quirky like Nan’s Christmas Carol to do with the characters again.
Can you sum up your overall experience of playing Tamsin?
I really wish we could have filmed some of these scripts because they are so good – literally out of this world, you can lose yourself in them like you can’t with other work. I had such a great time making them, the writing was brilliant and they run it like such a tight ship that the overall product is so good. It was a really great experience.