Interview: Justin Richards (BBC Books)

Justin Richards has been professionally writing Doctor Who stories for nearly 20 years now, and has also created numerous other series, including The Invisible Detective, Time Runners, and The School of Night. His non-fiction books looking at the new series of Doctor Who have held the same fascination for today’s young audience as the Doctor Who Monster Book did for those growing up with the show in the 1970s. He has written two graphic novels – so far – for BBC Books. The Dalek Project was originally meant to feature David Tennant’s Doctor but was put on hold because of some similarities with an upcoming TV story, but, rewritten to feature the Eleventh Doctor, it is now available (read our review here). Justin took some time out to discuss the project with Paul Simpson

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Let’s get the obvious out the way first: how much of the original version of this story has remained in the graphic novel we now have? It’s clearly not the same as Tom Baker’s face being drawn over Pertwee’s for TV Comic reprints, as happened in the 70s…

Justin Richards: The main change is the addition of the present day (well, slightly into the future) archaeological dig. The original script was for a graphic novel of 96 pages, which we’ve expanded to 128. For a while, I thought the best option would be to add an Eleventh Doctor introduction and just keep the original Tenth Doctor story intact. But we veered away from that to an all-Eleventh story.

The main changes are not to the plot or how the Doctor behaves, but to his dialogue and some nuances of why and how he does things. None of the other characters have been seriously impacted by meeting a different Doctor though.

Did rewriting for Matt’s Doctor alter any of the plot beats?

Not really. I thought it would, but maybe we were lucky that the initial part of the original plot carries the Doctor – any Doctor along – rather than him making the running.

There are still some conceptual similarities with elements of Victory of the Daleks

There are indeed a couple of changes that tie in with Victory of the Daleks – obviously they’re rather subtle! There’s mention of a third Dalek ship ‘on special duties’ which could be the ship that’s gone off to find the Progenitor. The logic there is that they’d pursue a similar plan as in this story they’re from the same original mission.

Also, of course, there are the humanoid robots being built in the ship when it’s uncovered – and the way that the humans the Daleks take over are depicted. Look at the small insert artwork on page 4 for a clue where Bracewell may have come from!

Was there ever any talk of using the new Paradigm Daleks? (although Asylum has shown that both co-exist)

No, it was always for the riveted bronze Daleks – which was why the main events are set before Victory of the Daleks with other Daleks from the same mission. I don’t think the New Paradigm would work, either narratively or in terms of a coherent overall design, in this story. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the Dalek plan in Victory of the Daleks wouldn’t have been at all credible with the New Paradigm Daleks – you’d never believe they were born of 1940s manufacturing technology. One of the problems, to my mind, with the New Paradigm is that I think they lose that timeless quality – ‘classic’ design Daleks don’t seem out of place in any time period, but the New Paradigm sort of have to be shiny, futuristic, advanced tech.

The Dalek as a creature born of a war of attrition hearkens back to their roots in Genesis; were you deliberately returning them to that era of hard warfare?

I suppose so, in the sense that the Dalek was originally designed as a war machine. They’ve been likened to miniature tanks, which is a very good description. There’s a scene in Genesis part 5 where the Daleks are returning to the Kaled Bunker along the tops of the trenches, and one comes forward and looks out across the – we assume – battlefield. A bit like on the title page of The Dalek Project.

You’ve written about Daleks manipulating humans before, in the Big Finish 8th Doctor range – more the Whitaker cunning creations than the Nation conquer and destroyers. Is that your preferred version of them? And which classic stories do you think show them best?

I think I’m just fascinated by all things Dalek. Yes, they are very manipulative in the two Whitaker-scripted Second Doctor stories. But in Power of the Daleks that’s out of necessity as they’re basically powerless. I think the Daleks as portrayed by Terry Nation are just as cunning – but we forget that because they’re also much more ruthless. But look at how they manipulate the Doctor and his friends in that first story into providing Thal drugs, and leading the Thals into an ambush. Or how they manipulate Mavic Chen throughout Daleks Master Plan, all the time letting him think he’s a step ahead of them when really it’s the other way round. They pretend to be allies with humans in Death to the Daleks too, of course…

In terms of the scripting, how detailed descriptions do you need to give Mike – do you reference old adventures as guides for him? Do you give him a full script, or do you alter once you’ve seen the visuals?

Basically I script it, like a screenplay. Or maybe it’s more like instructions for a storyboard. It’s quite detailed – but as a guide, as something for Mike to begin from rather than a prescriptive blueprint. We discuss everything in detail before I even start, or at least once I’ve got some ideas. Then we talk about what will work in the artwork, and what it’s maybe best to avoid – could he design a Dalek that was built using only 1917 technology, with a Gattling gun and tank tracks and a primitive movie-camera for an eye? Could we produce a similar but distinct German version of the Proto Dalek? And thematically, how would a modern version look for the Quasimodo Dalek that the archaeologists recreate? That sort of thing… It’s an iterative process. Mike will then suggest something that I make into a plot point. I don’t remember which of us, for example, suggested using the Character Options toy Dalek remote control box as the design for the Dalek remote control in The Only Good Dalek

What’s the most challenging element of writing for this medium, compared with books or audio?

All writing is a challenge! I suppose it’s getting the mindset that this is essentially a visual medium – sort of the inverse of the Big Finish audio play mindset. It’s understanding how much can be conveyed in the artwork, and also what the limitations are. More to do with what you can leave out rather than what you have to put in… Yes, that’s a challenge. But I love challenges.

Do you have a favourite moment in the story?

Several. Lots, actually. I like the sepia-toned flashbacks – though we tried very hard to make it clear that they are almost all ‘might have been’ moments. We never say the Daleks created the conditions for the Great War to start, but the Doctor has a moment where he fears that perhaps – just perhaps – that’s a possibility. Same with some of the other flashbacks – maybe it happened like this… But maybe it was completely different. Who knows?

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