Interview: Big Finish audio script editor Alan Barnes

Twelve years ago, audio production company Big Finish released The Sirens of Time, a multi-Doctor team up featuring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy reprising their Doctor Who roles in an officially licensed production before starting their own separate adventures.  In 2001, they were joined in the line-up by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, with Tom Baker set to make his debut next year. With a license that permits them to tell stories based around all the classic Doctors, Big Finish has expanded the Doctor Who universe with tales of the first three Doctors told by their companions as well as assorted other spin-offs.

To mark the 150th release in their regular monthly series, Paul Simpson spoke to Big Finish main range and McGann adventures script editor Alan Barnes…

Why did you choose this format for your 150th release?

It’s one of the four by one compilations, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri. The last one we did [The Demons of Red Lodge] we reserved entirely for writers new to the Doctor Who range, and we decided to do the same again. If we’re going to have a significant number or do some kind of celebratory release on those lines, I’d rather look to the future rather than do something retrospective and inward looking. I think the Big Finish audience has always been about finding new spaces within the classic Doctor Who universe to do exciting new stuff in. That’s the message we really want to get across: what we do is new. It may look somehow vampiric, or introspective, but no, we’re about the new things.

The Demons of Red Lodge featured one of the 1,200 pitches we got in last year, which was Rick Briggs’s play. I obviously did read all 1,200 submissions, and we ended up with a final shortlist of 12 which Nick Briggs and I dissected. I was very conscious that there were a number of plays in there that I really did want to do. Not to denigrate Rick’s submission, but because we had three other stories in that release, we went with the one that was in best contrast to the other stories. The other three – Catherine Harvey’s Recorded Time, Matt Fitton’s A Most Excellent Match and Philip Lawrence’s Question Marks – had all got huge merits and I wanted to do them, and 150 seemed a perfect chance to do that.

Peri gets some really good stuff to do in this one: A Most Excellent Match is kind of a send up of Jane Austen, which is her in an Elizabeth Bennett kind of role, and the Doctor proposes marriage as D’Arcy. It’s not as broad a comedy as Nicola’s Blackadder role [Blackadder’s Christmas Carol] but we’re definitely having fun with the archetypes. And Henry VIII is trying to make her one of his wives in Recorded Time! Poor Peri – the big bearded kings do tend to go for her!

You’ve got a new companion lined up for the Sixth Doctor, Flip, played by Lisa Greenwood…

Flip starts in January next year, although she’s already been in The Crimes of Thomas Brewster. Flip was very much an incidental character in Crimes. She really came to life in the studio, and David Richardson phoned me up and said, “This girl’s fantastic, she would make a great companion.” I went, whoah, alright, change course, let’s think about this. I listened to it, and it was great.

The thing about Flip is that actually there’s a new dynamic to her relationship with the Sixth Doctor that he hasn’t had before. He hasn’t really had to cope with an ultra-modern companion before, with the possible exception of Mel, but she was defined by things other than her modernity. It’s a huge amount of fun putting him with a girl from literally another age. It’s almost like putting the Sixth Doctor with a companion from the 1950s – she’s 30 years apart from the companions he had before. I think we’ve got some good stuff coming up there.

It seems to me as if you’re experimenting with Colin more than the others?

You think so?

You had the Jamie trilogy, you’ve got Evelyn who’s such a contrast to any other companion, Thomas Brewster… because of the way his adventures happened on television, I suppose you’ve got more of a canvas to work on?

Possibly… It’s sort of ended up that way, because with Peter we’ve had Janet Fielding coming back and being able to expand the quartet [of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough], with the older Nyssa storyline going on, which was something we hadn’t done before. It was hardly touched on telly: you hardly saw the four of them in the room together. When I’m looking at stories and teams, I’m always thinking, “Show us conflicts we haven’t seen before, and dynamics,” and change the characters slightly if you need to.

Whose idea was the older Nyssa? That really works well.

That was out of necessity! I was going, “We’ve got all three of them and somehow we’ve got to fit them in the space they’ve got on screen.” I rewatched the Black Guardian trilogy and said, “ok there’s about 15 minutes between Mawdryn Undead and Terminus.” I did come up with a way of doing it – but it would have been terribly contrived, and it was a story that would have ended.

After we’d commissioned the first batch of stories, I thought, “Hang about, why don’t we look at changing the companion we know best the most?” Which is Nyssa. That raises some really interesting stuff: you’ve got Tegan and Turlough still responding to Nyssa as if she’s this shrinking violet, the Trakenite version – and she’s about 60. (Trakenites don’t age in the same way, we’ve established that.) There’s an enormous well of frustration building up inside Nyssa, and we’ve also recently revealed, although it was there in Circular Time, that she does have a very real background to get back to in the post-Terminus world, and she has very particular reasons for a) sticking with the TARDIS crew but b) wanting to leave them as well. There’s all sorts of things being set up for the future.

Sylvester has said he wanted to do more solo adventures, and you’ve got three new ones currently being released. How much discussion is there about future releases?

Obviously we stay in communication – we can talk about what we want to do, and what we all need. There will be particular questions from time to time, and you want to satisfy them – but you want to satisfy them in the most dramatically interesting way possible.

What can you tell us about the Fourth Doctor stories?

It was completely unexpected to get Tom, something we’d never bargained on. All the accounts I’ve heard he’s tremendously up for it, and enjoying himself immensely. That’s a new dimension for us.

[Since Alan isn’t directly involved with the range, Fourth Doctor producer David Richardson told us: “It couldn’t be going better. He’s clearly relishing playing the Doctor again, and we’ve been striving hard to recapture the magic of those Saturday teatimes from 1977/78… I’m producing the series with Nick Briggs, with John Dorney as script editor, and our watchword has been ‘authentic’. Whenever we go through a story, list a title, or read scripts we always say ‘Does it pass the authenticity test’.

“To be honest, we’re still pinching ourselves. I’ve said before that although this is a dream job, and we are fans, really we just get on with it and don’t really think too hard about what we’re doing. Then, just every so often, it hits you: ‘We are recording brand new adventures with the Fourth Doctor and his assistants!’ And Tom is wonderful to work with – so enthusiastic, so funny… We’re having the time of our lives.]

Continued on page 2, in which Alan discusses the new Eighth Doctor stories and the future possibilites of the range


One thought on “Interview: Big Finish audio script editor Alan Barnes

  1. Thanks for the interview. Big Finish does a brilliant job with their Doctor Who audios, especially with their Companion casting – they’ve come up with some of the best and most interesting characters in the entire history of Doctor Who. My only complaint is that they have so many ranges to keep up with (main Doctor Who, Companion Chronicles, Lost Stories, etc.) that it’s hard to keep up, but what a problem to have. 😉

    Posted by Kevin W. Parker | August 28, 2011, 1:59 am

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