The Doctor Who that author Justin Richards fell in love with in 1963 was, as many emerging fans had intuited, profoundly empathetic. Though his personality initially may have sometimes appeared brusque and cantankerous, the centuries-old Time Lord steadily revealed with each successive iteration a boundless sense of duty to assist the victimized and oppressed. In today’s world where the very idea of behaving heroically has so often been regarded as quaint and naïve, author Justin Richards has developed in his newest Doctor Who title an entertaining and arousing sci-fi narrative that reminds us once more of the latent catalyzing potential of historical myths and fairy tales. To quote the German poet Schiller: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.”
The Creative Consultant for BBC Books range of Doctor Who novels, Justin Richards kindly agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule of editing next year’s Doctor Who novels to answer some of Entropy’s questions concerning his passion for the long-running BBC series and his newest labor of love Doctor Who: The American Adventures.
Entropy: Anyone who is at all familiar with your work knows how thoroughly steeped you are in the ‘Whoniverse.’ You’ve written a number of spin-off novels and audio plays based on the beloved BBC series. As I was reading your newest book Doctor Who: The American Adventures, it dawned on me how much of a fan you truly are. I’m almost tempted to call it fan-fiction absent the derogatory connotations. Obviously, what differentiates your stories from what one might casually find on FanFiction.Net is the quality of your adventures and, of course, the fact that they have been commissioned. How did your journey as a Doctor Who novelist start? What sparked this love of Doctor Who?
Justin Richards: I’ve always loved Doctor Who. It started on TV when I was two years old so I’ve always watched it and loved it. I think there was just nothing else like it on TV at the time – nothing that challenged the imagination in quite the same way. I think that’s probably still true. And I’ve always loved telling stories. So from as soon as I could write really I was writing my own Doctor Who stories. When Virgin Books started doing original novels in the 1990s I thought I’d like to send them a proposal – so I did. And they liked it and I wrote the book. It’s all gone from there really.
As I was reading your account of the Twelfth Doctor journeying through American history, I realized why I find the Doctor so endearing: Though he’s an alien, he’s thoroughly in love with humanity. He finds inspiration in us as we find inspiration in him. Is this how you see the Doctor? How has your approach to the character changed over time, if at all?
Yes, I do see the Doctor like that. I’m not sure that my approach to writing him has changed. Even though his appearance and to an extent his personality change, he remains the same person underneath it all with the same morals and objectives.
Is the creative process easier with each new Doctor Who project? I’ve spoken with writers of X-Files spinoffs and they sometimes find it difficult to break away from the staid Mulder-Scully tropes.
Every book and story is different – with different challenges and rewards. I don’t think it actually gets easier though. You still have to come up with a good story that ‘fits’ the Doctor.
I find the history and evolution of the series endlessly intriguing, particularly the various public reception to the programme. Evidently, activists such as Mary Whitehouse heavily campaigned against Doctor Who in the 1970s over the show’s perceived graphic content. You’ve written reference books on the subject. What in your research surprised or intrigued you?
That’s difficult to say. There’s so much history behind the creation and making of Doctor Who that you’re forever coming across new stories or anecdotes that surprise you. I really couldn’t single out one as being especially surprising!
Personally, it took me a long time to really appreciate Doctor Who; all of the charming quirks (e.g., The TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, the Daleks) were initially quite baffling. It wasn’t until my close friend John Gill introduced me to some choice episodes that I began to really let myself enjoy the series. Which episodes would you recommend for a newbie? For example, I know that if I was trying to get someone hooked on The X-Files, I’d steer them away from the mythology episodes and focus on the monster-of-the-week episodes. How would you go about explaining the Doctor Who basics to a newcomer?
At its core I think Doctor Who is actually very straightforward – all you really need to know is that he’s a long-lived alien who can change his appearance and go anywhere in time and space. I guess the best introduction would be the very first story – An Unearthly Child, with William Hartnell as the Doctor. Similarly, the best introduction to the current series is probably Rose with Christopher Ecclestone.
Perhaps my favorite adventure from The American Adventures was Ghosts of New York. Without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that what we learn as readers is that ghosts, or at least these specific ghosts in 1902, are not what they seem. Of course, this is what I find so fun about Doctor Who in general and it’s what you’re so very good at delivering in your tales – that expertly crafted twist that reveals how the seemingly supernatural is grounded in something very concrete, albeit science fiction-y. Not surprisingly, many have commented on how Doctor Who reinforces a certain teleological worldview. In your opinion, does Doctor Who foster a certain rationalist disposition? Are there any intrinsic philosophical implications that one ought to consider in thinking through your stories?
I don’t think there are, to be perfectly honest. I do like to devise stories that have a twist – I guess mainly because those are the sorts of stories I like to read. And yes, everything in Doctor Who ultimately has to be based on science and rationality – though often science that hasn’t been invented or discovered yet, of course.
I have to ask: Who is your favorite Doctor? Who is your least favorite? My understanding is that the 2005 version of Doctor Who is a direct plot continuation of the original 1963-1989 series. How do you like the new version thus far? Tangentially, I’d be interested to hear your take on the Doctor Who fandom. The positive reception to Doctor Who seems to be in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly negative fan reaction to recent American properties, i.e., the new X-Files and Ghostbusters reboot.
My favourite Doctor from the original series was the Second Doctor – played by Patrick Troughton. I guess that’s just because he was the Doctor as I was growing up and getting to love the series. From the current run it’s David Tennant – I think he just mailed it a bit better than the others. I don’t really have a least favourite Doctor. They’re all good, in different ways! Fandom is interesting – and yes, there is more of a love for the series than for a lot of other SF type stuff. I’ve been involved in fandom since it started really and found almost all the fans I’ve met to be lovely people.
What are you working on now? What’s next for Doctor Who? My understanding is that Peter Capaldi will be returning for the annual Christmas episode.
We’re busy with next year’s publications – some interesting reference books for later in the year, and a set of novels that will come out when the series is back on TV (in the UK) in April. I’m co-writing one of the reference books, and editing all the others. So I’m keeping busy!
Justin Richards is the author of dozens of genre and sf novels, as well as non-fiction books, audio scripts, television and a stage play. He has edited books of short stories, been a technical writer, and worked as odd-job man in a hotel for postal workers. Married with two children (both boys), Justin lives and works in Warwick, within sight of one of Britain’s best-preserved castles.