Last year, Big Finish Productions hosted the first Paul Spragg Memorial Competition. In memory of Mr. Spragg, a beloved Big Finish employee, Big Finish would seek out new writers to craft a Doctor Who short trip.
Joshua Wanisko was the first winner. It was my pleasure to sit down with him, and pick his brain on the contest, writing, and Doctor Who itself.
1) Tell us a bit about “Forever Fallen,” what inspired it, and why everyone should drop what they’re doing right now and listen to it.
I think it’s worth hearing because it tells a story that that’s not often found in Doctor Who. What if the villain accepted the Doctor’s offer to back away from his evil scheme before it was too late? I don’t want to say it’s never been told, because there have been hundreds of authors and thousands of stories for the more than fifty years Doctor Who has been in existence, so somebody probably wrote a similar story at some point. I’m just saying I didn’t know about such a story when I wrote Forever Fallen.
There were a number of influences on the story, but if you want to try to isolate the proximate cause, the “but-for” event without which it would not exist, it would be seeing Tom Baker’s address at the first (Re)Generation Who. He emphasized the Doctor’s kindness, and in doing so, reminded me of what I love about the character. That’s not an element of the Doctor’s personality that receives as much emphasis in the revived television series, indeed you could go so far as to say that David Tennant’s Doctor is defined by his disproportionate retributions, but for me, that surpassing kindness is as an important a component to the Doctor’s identity as the TARDIS.
2) Going back to the beginning of the beginning, how did you discover Doctor Who? Which Doctor do you consider your Doctor, and which of their stories is your favorite?
I’m kind of dating myself here, but I grew up in rural New Jersey, where we had three television networks (and PBS!). I was about eight years old and I was working the dial that rotated the antenna on the roof, trying to find something worth watching on a Saturday afternoon. I came across an episode of Doctor Who, though I had no idea what it was at the time. It was the bit in Full Circle where Romana is infected with the Marshman DNA. I thought “This is weird and I don’t understand it, but I guess I’ll watch it, because it’s science fiction.” By the end of the episode, I was hooked.
Who is my Doctor? Hmmm…I go back and forth between Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy. I think I’ll answer McCoy today, because he’s on my mind, but ask me on another day and I’ll tell you Tom Baker. My favorite stories are everybody’s favorite stories, Genesis of the Daleks, City of Death and The Curse of Fenric. (Honorable mention to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances from the new series. I do love those episodes.)
3) From there, how did you discover Big Finish? What are your favorite audio stories?
I came relatively late to Big Finish. It was in about 2012. I had a subscription to Audible and a job that allowed me to listen to it at work. The app recommended Shada to me and I loved it. A new adventure with the characters I knew and loved from the original series! When I finished listening to that, I went looking for similar stories, but Audible didn’t have any. It was either audiobook novelizations of television stories or novels from the revived series era, and I wasn’t particularly interested in either.
So I started looking online for new Doctor Who stories featuring characters from the Classic series, but without any real hope of finding such a thing. That, of course, led me to Big Finish, and I fell in love with them instantly, as soon as I discovered them. I didn’t know they existed, then I found them, and I fell in love with them totally and forever. I think of them as the I Ching calculator from the Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books (“And to be able to move from total ignorance of something to total desire for it, and then actually to own the thing all within the space of about forty seconds was, for Dirk, something of an epiphany.”)
Favorite stories: Hmmm…that’s a tough one. If I had to choose a single story, it would probably have to be A Death in the Family, as it features both Hex and Evelyn, two of my all-time favorite companions. Runners up include Colditz and the first Klein trilogy, Doctor Who and the Pirates and The Harvest, and The One Doctor, The Kingmaker and The Trouble with Drax at the sillier end.
4) Let’s move on to the Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip Competition. How many story concepts did you imagine, and how many did you submit? How did you approach the competition?
I only submitted the one. I thought it would be better to make one story as good as possible than it would be to spread myself out. I had some half formed ideas for a second concept but it turns out that my second idea wound up being very similar to the plot of an upcoming Short Trip advertised for 2017 so it’s just as well I didn’t complete it.
I correspond daily with two close friends over email. One had recently entered a script writing competition and that inspired me. I remember sending a message to them along the lines of “Hey, Big Finish is having a call for open submissions. I think I’ll enter. I can’t imagine I’ll make it, but it’ll be good practice.”
That was in mid-May. I refined the story over the next month, and they were very good sounding boards. One is a fan of the show from her youth, but the other has no real interest in it, and those perspectives were very useful in contrasting what worked for casual listeners and hardcore fans.
5) Once your story was accepted, what happened? Walk us through the process.
I was already pretty happy with the story when I was working on the outline and the pitch. At some point in the process, I decided that it was coming along well enough that I would complete it whether or not the story got picked. I kept revising it and refining it, and decided after a time that I wasn’t improving it, so I gave it a final read and sent it in.
Several weeks later I received an email before work. I still live in the US, so I’m about five hours behind Big Finish time. I received the notification that my story had been selected at around 7 am on a Friday morning.
After it was selected by Big Finish, the next step was for them to submit my entry to the BBC. Which segues into the next question.
6) Once you were approved, what was the writing process like? How nerve-wracking was it?
Relatively painless. I’m congenitally anxious, but Ian Atkins is a dream to work with. The approval process was the BBC was much more stressful, because that was outside of my control. If they didn’t like it for whatever reason or if it just so happen to conflict with something they had planned, that would be the end of it.
I continued to work on the story while we waited for approval. I had sent it in near the very end of the submission period, so it had already been thoroughly workshopped by the time I submitted it. It has eleven distinct chapters, so I had a pretty clear framework and I knew what I wanted to do when I started fleshing it out from the outline. I knew what happened in each chapter, and, because I had so rigorously outlined, and because it’s such a comparatively short character piece, a lot of it was just crafting the connective tissues to bring those set piece chapters together into a cohesive whole.
At every point in the process, I always had the impression that Big Finish was going to work together to make the best story we could. The biggest change came with the name of the planet. I tried to follow Doctor Who naming conventions and give the planet a name that sounded like something out of Classic Who. Unfortunately, there are more than 50 years of people following those conventions, and all the good ones have been picked. The original name was “Arcadia 7”. I liked that, and it sets up the “Even in Arcadia I exist” line early in the story. (That became “Even in Elysium I exist,” which doesn’t make all that much sense, but I kind of like it anyway.) Unfortunately, it’s the name of a city on Gallifrey, so we couldn’t use it. So, I pitched a number of alternatives, and Big Finish was like “No, that’s a place in the new series. That other one is used in a novel. And Argolis was the planet in the Leisure Hive. Why don’t you try googling it next time?” I’m exaggerating somewhat for laughs, but this really was an area where I faced the most unforeseen difficulty.
I later joked that I should have named the planet “Atlantis”, because no one cares if there’s another one of those floating around in Doctor Who.
7) We recently reached the end of the road. After everything, how did it feel to hear Nicholas Briggs read your story?
I get chills when he reads the Doctor’s speech in the prologue. He read everything exactly as I imagined it.
He even pronounced my last name correctly, which puts him one up on every telemarketer who has ever called my house.
8) One of the most notoriously difficult parts of writing for franchises, or perhaps the most obvious difficult part, is capturing the characters’ “voices.” Did you have trouble capturing the seventh Doctor and Ace? What did you do to make sure you got them right?
I think the biggest problem I had with that is that I’m an American, and my vocabulary is informed by that. I knew the kind of thing Ace would say, but didn’t have as strong a grasp of the specific phrases she’d use in articulating it. Ian Atkins provided invaluable assistance in translating American phrases I thought to be universal into the language Ace would employ. For instance “Is that a wedding ring?” became “That’s never a wedding ring?”
Ace doesn’t have as big a role as I would have liked in the story, but 5000 words only go so far. and there was already a lot going on, so she had to be trimmed down a bit. I’m very happy with the Doctor’s language. I think I captured him pretty well. I’m very pleased with his speeches at the beginning and the end of the story, and of course Nick Briggs delivers them wonderfully.
9) How do you approach the seventh Doctor? Who do you see him as–what defines him? What sets him apart from other Doctors?
In a word, Ace. I love his mentorship. He knows how to solve her problems, but doing it for her won’t allow her to grow. So he helps her become the person who can solve those problems.
Also, he gives us what’s probably my favorite moment in Classic Who, where he repels the attacking haemovores by reciting the names of his past companions. He’s cynical and manipulative, but I love that when we get down to brass tacks, what he has faith in is the people who believe in him.
10) What advice would you have for people entering the Paul Spragg Memorial Competition next year?
Write out as much of the finished story as you can before sending it in. Read it out loud. This will help you identify problems with the story. Find two friends, one who knows Doctor Who and one who doesn’t, and get regular feedback from each of them. Try to fit the story to the format. I’m not sure this story would work as a full length production, but I do think the concept is pretty well-suited to a Short Trip.
I think the most important part is to understand that so much comes down to luck and timing. The quality of what you write is only one component. I recall hearing that there were dozens of stories on the short list, and I would bet that any one of them was as good as mine or better. It reminds me of something that Mark Evanier wrote. He’s been working in the entertainment industry forever, and he used the example of two friends going out to eat to make a point. They arrive and have a choice between a Deli, an Italian restaurant and Chinese restaurant. They decide that they’re in the mood for corned beef and wind up going to the deli. It would be a mistake for the owners of the other two restaurants to believe their establishments were rejected. The two diners just happened to be in the mood for something else.
I think Forever Fallen is a good story, and I’m proud of it, but it would be ridiculous of me to claim it was the best story submitted. It happened to be the story that best met their needs.
11) What’s next for Joshua Wanisko?
I’m kicking around one idea that I think might have some potential, but that’s still in its infancy.
My family was actually travelling when the story was released, and they only returned last night. We haven’t had the chance to listen to the story together yet, so that’s actually top of my list. Feel free to imagine me as Colin Baker in the scene in the Five-ish Doctors where he locks his family in the house and makes them watch his videos.
12) What other beloved franchises would you like to get a crack at, now that you’ve officially written for Doctor Who?
I’ve been very fortunate. My other passion is the works of Roger Zelazny, and my very first professional work was in a magazine that was having a Zelazny tribute issue [“Mother of Monsters” in Lovecraft eZine #27]. Admittedly, that’s even more niche an interest than Doctor Who audio plays, but it meant a lot to me personally, and I was happy to have done it.
13) Where can your soon-to-be-adoring public follow you online?
I’m on twitter, but I only have 29 posts after about five years. I do most of my writing online at Where there had been Darkness, which began as an effort to review all of Zelazny’s major works and then transitioned into other geeky areas once I completed that goal.