Some years back it was my great good fortune to interview (via email) for the Ozark Gazette the talented science fiction novelist Kate Orman, who has many Doctor Who novels under her belt.
It is an interview which not only shows the great love that Orman has for the program, but why the long-running SF series - which made its debut in November 1963 - has captured the imaginations of so many around the world.
The Winds of Time and Space
An interview with Kate Orman, Doctor Who writer, Parts One and Two
November, 1963: the first episode of a new science fiction program makes its debut on the British Broadcasting Corporation. Though no one could predict it, the program's popularity has lasted 35 years. Like Star Trek, the show has reached millions through television programs, radio plays, novels, comics, records and films.
Like its body-switching protagonist, Doctor Who has had several incarnations. Once again part of the BBC's stable of programming, its popularity remains unchecked around the world. For the faithful, the adventures of the Doctor, a mysterious traveler in time and space, continue in a series of acclaimed novels.
A Time Lord, the Doctor grew tired of being part of a society which chose to watch and observe, but never interfere. He stole a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a machine which travels through time and space, and set about trying to make the universes a better place.
Along the way he travels with companions who stay with him for a while before moving on. Most of them are women.
After a few years, the first actor to play the role, William Hartnell, decided to drop from the part. The producers were left with the dilemma of how to replace him. Should the Doctor be replaced with another character, or should the series be dropped? A more imaginative approach was used. Since the Doctor was an alien, wouldn't it be possible that he could somehow “regenerate” into a new body? Since that time, the Doctor has changed bodies (and actors) seven times, and the audience has always stayed with the show.
Doctor Who lives on beyond the TV screens in a series of respected novels. While at first Virgin Publishing ran with the series in a “New Adventures” format, the BBC has recently begun publishing the series under its own imprint, but with many of the Virgin authors. In this interview we talk with Kate Orman, one the most popular writers in the series. Living in Australia, she is the only woman writing for the series thus far. Orman, who now writes with husband Jonathon Blum, has written passages which take the series beyond genre into literature.
This interview was conducted after the 1996 TV movie on Fox, but before the new series began on BBC a few years ago.
Ozark Gazette: Writing for an established series such as the Doctor Who series - what are your constraints, and what freedoms do you enjoy? And, of course, what drew you to the Who series in the first place?
Kate Orman: Like many thirty-something Australians, I grew up with Doctor Who - it was almost as much an institution here as it was in Britain. The series was repeated constantly, usually paired with The Goodies, just before the news. That 6:30 time slot meant that parents and children alike would enjoy the show. We started to suffer Doctor Who famine during the 1980s, when the ABC started to lose interest in the series, burying it in awkward time slots (at one stage, it was being shown at 4:30 am!). Fan fiction was one way of whiling away the long months between new stories.
When the New Adventures were first announced back in 1990, I had been writing fan fiction for years - it was a golden opportunity to put all of that practice to work!
Having the main characters already thought up for you is a terrific time-saver! All you have to do is to keep your characterization reasonably in line with what's already been established. Plus you can create a story by simply saying, “What would happen if the Doctor found himself in such-and-such a situation?”
The science fiction adventure format is pretty flexible, just as the series could accommodate all sorts of styles - comedy, horror, and so on. But there are certain constraints on the writers. There are firm rules, such as the BBC's banning of the f-word after fannish outcry. Then there's the need to cooperate with other writers in the series and with the editor - you can't just take the characters off in some bizarre direction.
OG: The Doctor Who series, much like the Star Trek series, has a large contingent of what are known as “fanboys,” the sort of people that William Shatner disparaged on the famous Saturday Night Live skit, in which he told them to “get a life!” I know that some do not like the New Adventures - I'm not aware of how much criticism there has been towards the new BBC line of books - but it seems to be that much of the criticism seems a little juvenile. While not disparaging the fans - I know that many are quite conservative - how do they feel about writers such as yourself playing “fast and loose” with characters and situations?
Orman: It's got to be said that the “Get A Life!” fanboy is basically the media image of fandom. To some journalists, we're all fanboys - which means it's OK to make fun of us, and more. You get the most amazing insults, real hate coming through, often from writers who obviously love the shows but insist they're not geeky fans (Thank heavens there are plenty of sympathetic journalists as well!). This is not to say that you don't meet the occasional obsessed or bizarre fan, but I'm sure that stamp collectors and sports fans could say the same!
But to come back to your question - there is a fannish conservatism. There's a lot of diversity in fan opinion, but every new idea introduced to the show or the novels provokes an outcry. A good example was “The Deadly Assassin,” starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. It was first shown in 1975 - these days it's thought of as a classic story. But back then, fans were outraged by how it changed the Time Lords, showing them as weak and corrupt, instead of as the Olympian creatures we'd seen before.
More recently, the 1996 television movie prompted similar outcry - a lot of which was utter outrage at the very chaste kisses exchanged by the Doctor and his companion, Grace Holloway. There was no hint of sex or even real romance in the movie, but the way some fans talked about it, you'd think it had been a stag film!
Sometimes, of course, the fans have got genuine concerns. A lot of fans liked Doctor Who because the hero didn't spend his time chasing girls - they were worried that the Doctor would turn into a typical TV hero, with a girl of the week. Gay fans were concerned because the Doctor had been “nailed down” as heterosexual, denying them a role model who didn't bat an eye at being surrounded by beautiful women.
But I do think that a lot of these criticisms are prompted by a sort of possessiveness - how dare they change our show! As well as by a desire to show off your knowledge by pointing out continuity “mistakes.”
Of course each new development is accepted in time - just as “The Deadly Assassin” came to be accepted. So I think it's essential for the Who writers to keep pushing the envelope, keep on trying new things. The essence of the show - this marvelous, non-violent hero traveling the universe with his companions and putting wrongs right -is the only thing we have to stick to.
OG: It seems that the Who novels seem to feature more gay characters than many “mainstream” SF novels. Once again, the reaction seems to have been either wild enthusiasm or deep anger. What is your take on the situation?
Orman: Fortunately, I think most fans have taken the presence of gay characters in their stride. You do hear from the fans who can't deal with it - as well as the ones who have a problem with the feisty female characters!
It's a topic of great debate whether there's a higher proportion of gays and lesbians within fandom than in the general population. Obviously you can't go around asking people on the surveys - “Who's your favourite Doctor, and by the way . . .”“
What's certainly true is that there are a lot of visible gay fans. It might be that Doctor Who holds a special attraction - perhaps because of the Doctor's lack of (hetero)sexuality, perhaps for sheer camp value! Or it might be that fandom is generally tolerant - I'd like to think that's the case.
A lot of the New Adventures writers are gay, or have come out of that gay-friendly fannish culture - so it wasn't surprising to see gay characters appearing in the novels. I think a lot of TV tie-ins would be too conservative to try something that progressive.
I think one of the reasons queer folks are attracted to science fiction is the questions it asks, the possibilities it opens up when it comes to gender and sexuality. You can imagine a future in which lesbian marriages are absolutely ordinary, as in my Sleepy, or more outre worlds in which people change sex whenever they please. A character from Ben Aaronovitch's The Also People started off as a woman, but when she wasn't able to chat up the Doctor's female companion, she simply changed into a man and had another try!
Obviously Doctor Who novels didn't pioneer these concepts, but I do think we're reaching a new audience with some of them. I know that some of the first well-drawn gay characters I encountered were in the New Adventures.
OG: I would like to talk about the move - which began in the TV series itself - turning the seventh Doctor into a manipulative character, much darker than his previous incarnations. What was the general reaction to this among readers?
Orman: The “dark Doctor” was well-established by the time the New Adventures came onto the scene. But - especially at first - the characterization in the books wasn't always the same; the Doctor could be grim and alien in one novel, light and bumbling in the next. We were seeing different aspects of a complicated personality. I think the readers got restless with the grim characterization of the Doctor - it is possible to overdo the doom, gloom and unpleasantness, so it was important to show those other sides to him.
OG: I know that you met your husband Jonathan online - how did this come about? This sort of modern romance is the story of the coming century, I think. And Jon, of course, decided to emigrate to Australia, and now you collaborate together. I have four novels in front of me - The Left-Handed Hummingbird, Set Piece, Sleepy, and Vampire Science - Vampire Science stands out head and shoulders above three excellent novels.
Kate Orman: Jon and I met in the “Doctor Who” newsgroup, rec.arts.drwho. Geek love! Jon was a bit of a fan of my writing, and I admired his eloquent and often passionate postings to the group. I was also a fan of his home-made Doctor Who video, Time Rift. He looked very cute in his Seventh Doctor costume.
OG: There seems a sort of emotional maturity in Vampire Science that I could not help but respond to. The different relationships, the spiritual exhaustion of Doctor Shackle, and the various pulls that Sam found herself going through all come together and make this a novel in the classic sense, and not just an adventure based on a television series. Is this an example of your teamwork writing style?
Orman: I think Jon contributes so much of the characters’ emotional struggles. Where I tend to beat up the characters to make the reader care, Jon puts them through their paces emotionally. How would we really react if we found ourselves in these situations, surrounded by vampires? With despair? With courage? The Doctor is extraordinary, but characters like Carolyn or Shackle or even Sam are not too different from the actual readers (or indeed the writers).
OG: What drew you both to Doctor Who? What is there about this character which has proven so durable, and so attractive to so many?
Orman: I grew up with the series, and didn't begin to think about the character’s appeal until I was much older. At first, I know it was just the strange ideas, places, and people that fascinated me. But the Doctor himself . . . a hero who avoids violence, who uses his mind to solve problems, stands out from the television crowd.
He's more like a big brother or a good friend, taking you to these scary planets but always defeating the monsters in the end, than some distant soldier figure. The fact that he can go absolutely anywhere, throughout history and time and space, means that you never have to tell the same story twice; you can explore, and you know you're always safe with the Doctor. I was always far more frightened by The Goodies than Doctor Who! Sutekh or the Daleks didn’t bother me, but when the Goodies were swallowed by a dinosaur, I was mortified!
OG: But what about Kate Orman? Where did you spring from?
Orman: Well, I'm a failed geneticist! After quitting my honours year of lab work after five hellish months, I spent half a year trying to get a job. During that time, I wrote a terrible Doctor Who novel, but learnt an immense amount doing it.
It was becoming more and more obvious that I was in the wrong line of work. It takes a very special, focused mind to do the precise, repetitive work needed for molecular biology, and mine wanders all over the place! As an undergrad, I'd taken an extra notebook to an awful lot of lectures, writing Doctor Who epics during the boring bits. I was even writing a novel on the lab's primitive computer!
I got a job at a university library, and spent my first paycheck on a new computer and some decent word processing software. Then I started writing novel proposals and sending them off to Virgin. Just as I was seriously considering a degree in librarianship, The Left-Handed Hummingbird was accepted. I'm still working on “breaking out” of Doctor Who. I've got various original SF ideas underway, including novels and short stories.
OG: I notice a lot of references to popular culture - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Temple of Doom material, etc. You seem to get a big kick out of doing that - true?
Orman: We can't help ourselves, we're fans! My earlier novels are crammed with references, some of them very awful, like the desperate joke about “Hotel California” in The Left-Handed Hummingbird.
OG: The newer novels - not just your own - seem to have a more definite interest in the telling of the women’s stories - such as the growth of Ace, or extracts from Benny's diary - and certainly Sam - how would we compare the view of women in the series now, as opposed to the earlier years - especially where the series is set.
Orman: Novels have got the room to really delve into the companions’ characters - it's much more difficult to do this on television, where you've got less than a hundred minutes to tell your story. That said, I wish some of the TV writers had used character development to pad out their stories, instead of running around or “TARDIS bitch scenes.”
We know woefully little about most of the companions. Where does Peri come from, exactly? How about Tegan? What are Sarah Jane's politics? We usually only see these characters in action situations - we know if they can fight, whether they scream when they see a monster, but we don't learn about their families, their love lives, what's going on in their heads.
Since companions are usually women, this means you end up with a lot of shallow female characters - which TV is already full of. But in the novels, you have the potential to really explore those female characters, put them through their paces, use their skills, courage, and failings to tell the story.
The fact that the characters are female also usually gets forgotten - except when you have BEMs (Bug Eyed Monsters) slobbering all over Peri, that sort of thing. I try to keep the characters' gender in mind - for instance, stranded in Ancient Egypt in Set Piece, Ace has to cope both with local attitudes to women but with some rather odd methods of contraception.
Ace stands out as an exception to the two-dimensional companion; we know a great deal about her ordinary life, where she's from, her relationship with her parents, and so on. So she was just the right companion to start off with in the New Adventures.
OG: And, of course, how is writing for Paul McGann's eighth Doctor different than writing for Sylvester McCoy's seventh Doctor, who seems a very manipulative, almost dark natured character?
Orman: It's very different! In fact, in Vampire Science, we tried to make him as different as possible. He doesn't plan and scheme, he doesn't manipulate people - although some of what he does is still a bit ambiguous. He tends to rush headlong into things, relying on his skills of improvisation, where the Seventh Doctor would have spent ages carefully setting everything up. He doesn't brood, though he does sometimes reflect. He loves small, ordinary pleasures, like kittens.
In fact, he can get so fluffy and nice, one reader said he was “a giant Smurf!” We're working on bringing out his harder side as well - not dark and manipulative like his predecessor, but his toughness under pressure, his impatience and temper, his touch of arrogance.
OG: How do approach the writing of these novels, now that BBC Books has taken up publishing them, after the ground-breaking Virgin Books series?
Orman: Writing for the Beeb has been different from writing for Virgin, largely because of the change in momentum - as with Virgin's New Adventures, the BBC novels are taking a while to hit their stride. Knowing that BBC Books also have a reputation as a “safe” publisher for children, we were timid about including the “adult” material which had been a staple of Virgin's novels. But the BBC is aware that the novels were meant for and were read by grown-ups, and they don't want to lose that audience. So our caution was for naught!
Ozark Gazette - November 1998