This year’s hardback Doctor Who novel is The Silent Stars Go By, which pitches the 11th Doctor, Amy and Rory against the might of the Ice Warriors. Paul Simpson caught up with author Dan Abnett to talk about the book, as well as his other original fiction…
Are you a fan of Doctor Who? Do you watch it each week?
I do. I always was. Everyone is dated by their Doctor – I’m Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker, Peter Davison to a certain extent. Ironically, I’ve written more Sylvester McCoy stories than anyone else.
How did you get involved with writing The Silent Stars Go By?
I got invited – everything should be that easy!
The complicated answer is: 25 years of hard work. Back in the late 1980s I worked for Marvel UK as an editor, and started writing back then, Ghostbusters and Transformers and stuff. The floor of the building I was on was where Doctor Who Magazine was being put together and although I didn’t work on it directly, it was in the neighbouring office and we used to proof read each other’s copy. I also wrote stories for them back then for the comic strip. That was my first involvement with Doctor Who – I think if the Panini reprints carry on, they’ll reach my stories in the next volume.
I must have made some sort of lasting impression because although I went off and did freelance bits and pieces, when Torchwood came along, I was approached to write one of the first novels for that. Gary Russell was Mr Cardiff Approvals Person and I was flattered to discover that he had very fond memories of the stories I had written for DWM all those years ago – he particularly liked my take on it and wrangled an invite to write the Torchwood novel.
I did a couple of Big Finish audios as well, and reconnected with Doctor Who 15 years later, all on the basis of the good work I’d done all those years ago. I’ve done a couple of original audios which David Tennant and Catherine Tate have read, the Torchwood book and The Book of Martha. So I had a regular relationship with them, and they’d get me to do bits and pieces for them where possible.
I had originally been asked to write one of the first Matt Smith novels, but because I write for Games Workshop and they keep me very busy, I had to turn it down because I didn’t have time to do it. I was very disappointed. They came back and they were very keen for me to do this one – not just a Matt Smith one but the second special Christmas hardback, following in very illustrious footsteps [Michael Moorcock’s The Coming of the Terraphiles]. I wasn’t going to say no to that.
What parameters were given to you? Did it have to be bigger to justify being in hardback?
They were actually remarkably flexible. The only thing they insisted on was it had to be the current cast, and it had to fit in to relatively current continuity so it sat comfortably there as a product. Everything else really came from me: they asked what I wanted to do. I thought I would try and do a book that was as Christmassy as possible for everyone who was getting it in their Christmas stockings, yet not so Christmassy that if you read it at any other time of the year, it wouldn’t be inappropriate. The thing was laden with Christmas imagery but wasn’t actually a Christmas story in the television sense of the word.
I thought it should have a pretty big villain in it, as it were: a classic appearance or return of… To me the Ice Warriors said Christmas because of the very obvious connotations of ice and Christmas. I asked for them, and that was the only stumbling block: I had to wait ages for the producers to decide whether I could use them or not, or whether there were plans for them elsewhere.
I think that was one of the things that I worked hardest at. I didn’t want to just say, “This is what they’re like now” and do a Klingon makeover where it didn’t account for the classic series. But I also didn’t want them to be comically old-fashioned, from a modern audience’s point of view.
The Ice Warriors are very unusual among Doctor Who foes: they are held in enormous high esteem as one of the top three or four: Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors. Maybe they tie with the Sontarans for third place in terms of lasting impression – yet they only appeared four times, a long time ago. There is no modern incarnation of them at all; they’re unusual in they’re as often good guys as they are bad guys, and they seem to have endured in people’s imaginations much longer than tall actors in rubber suits should have done really. I don’t know why that is: I think there’s something intrinsically memorable about them.
I was also trying to bear in mind as much as possible the way they have been used in all their other appearances – like [the Marvel strip] Absalom Daak, Dalek Killer. They have sustained their own continuity above and beyond the TV. The Silurians were great in their day and when they brought them back and reinvented them, there was no cross-pollination particularly between the old stories and the new ones, so it was perfectly acceptable to do that. But the Ice Warriors have a legacy that fans acknowledge and it would be a shame to come in and say they’re blue now and have spikes on their heads.
I wanted them to be both of those things – I wanted them to have the idea they were essentially Bernard Bresslaw in a rubber suit, which had enormous menace, and yet were capable of doing superhuman things because they were alien warriors. I didn’t want people who knew them to say, “That’s not right,” and people who didn’t know them to say, “What’s the fuss about?” I hope I pulled it off – they’re the 1960s black and white monsters and also how they would be executed today without fundamentally ruining them.