Interview With Robert Shearman, Author of Dalek
Out this week in the UK, next month in the US, are a new set of Doctor Who novelizations.
Target originally published Doctor Who script adaptations from 1973-1993. BBC Books took up the mantle again with five key episodes from the relaunched series in 2018. This new set, called the Target Collection, consists of seven books:
- The Witchfinders by Joy Wilkinson, who also wrote the script for this 13th Doctor episode; this is the first novel with the current Doctor
- The Crimson Horror by Mark Gatiss, who also wrote the script for this 11th Doctor episode
- Resurrection of the Daleks (5th Doctor) and
- Revelation of the Daleks (6th Doctor), both by Eric Saward, screenwriter of the TV versions, reprints of 2019 hardcovers
- Pirate Planet by James Goss, reprinting the 2017 hardcover based on Douglas Adams’ script
- The TV Movie by Gary Russell, a revised version of the 1996 novelization
- Dalek by Robert Shearman, based on his script for the 9th Doctor episode
Mr. Shearman was kind enough to take the time to answer a few of my questions about that last one. I’m a long-time casual Doctor Who fan, but I’ve never read any of the book versions. (That will change once this is released!) I was intrigued by the way that authors were writing the same story in a different format, and what it was like to come back to one’s work in that way. (Also, I was a bit stunned that it’s been over 15 years since the “new” Doctor Who began airing.)
Dalek originally aired in April 2005 as the sixth episode of the relaunched series. Co-starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, the episode sends them to 2012 Utah, where a reclusive billionaire has been collecting alien artifacts, including the “Metaltron” of the title.
It’s not typical to get a chance to revisit a well-received work 15 years later, is it? What was your reaction to the idea of transforming your story into another format given the time that’s passed? And given that length of time, was it easier or harder to write the novelization?
In a funny way, I think it was that gap in time that made the commission so attractive! Many of the old Target novelisations, back in the 1970s and 1980s, were written back to back with the scripted episode. You could see the story on TV — and within months, there it would be, on the shelves in the bookshop! When I wrote Dalek way back in 2005, there was absolutely no thought at all that the Target range would ever be resurrected — all we worried about at the time was whether this new revival of the series would even find a TV audience!
So I thought of all the writers who were asked to novelise their episodes this time around, in a way I had the easiest task. Because it will be much harder to find new perspective on a story when you’ve only just told it. For me that fifteen years’ gap was like a godsend! Artistically, it meant there was something new to do — because even if I had wanted to do a slavish copy of what had been shown on screen, I’m not remotely the same young(er) writer I was back then. It forced me to do something new — because there was really no other way. And the process was so much fun — it felt like I was continually in conversation with my younger self, appreciating from a decade and a half’s distance the things that seemed to work, and getting to argue with him about all the things that now felt clunky or awkward or dated.
I hadn’t watched the episode in years. I think I was always a bit afraid I’d find it embarrassing in retrospect, that things hadn’t gone as well as you’d made yourself believe. But I liked it, which was a relief. But I didn’t like it so much that I wasn’t inspired to do a completely fresh take on it — and that was an even bigger relief, because it meant I had somewhere to go with it!
Are there any significant differences between the book version and the TV episode? If so, what kinds of things changed or were added?
Oh, absolutely tons. I think out of pure necessity, really. The TV episode is very contained, both in terms of location, and in terms of pace. It’s really an adventure where a pepperpot chases some characters up a flight of stairs in real time! That doesn’t scream ‘novel’ — that’s much more like a short story! I went back to my earlier drafts of the script to see if there was anything I could mine, but for the most part all the abandoned ideas I’d originally come up with had been abandoned for good reasons. There was a certain cartoony feel to those earlier drafts — and I remember how Russell T Davies, my showrunner, had urged me to try for more emotional realism.
So with the book I thought it better to continue what Russell had started — and to explore the characters in much greater depth. You come out of the claustrophobic narrative to read little interim chapters that tell these quirky short stories of who these people are, and it gives new irony to their eventual fates we know from the broadcast episode. And hopefully too, gives a lot more depth to the Dalek itself — making it at once more dangerous and threatening, but also more tragic. I think that the broad sweep of the episode is mostly intact, but there are lots of new detours, and lots of new dark jokes — and even a cameo from a certain American President on a golf course.
How did this come about?
The publisher approached me. It was well-timed — I had just finished writing a real marathon of a book, longer than War and Peace, that had taken me nearly a decade to get through! And I was exhausted, and so much wanted to try a smaller project. I had an email, and was so excited. And so honoured, actually — there are, I think, about 150 stories in the new series, so to have your episode picked for the novelisation treatment was a thrill. I had collected all the Target books back when I was a kid — I still have a complete set, sitting proudly in my office! So to be given the chance to contribute to the range felt like a present to my childhood. I know that my thirteen-year-old self would be running around the house squawking with joy!
There’s also an audio adaptation, which in a way brings this full circle. [Dalek was inspired by the audio drama Jubilee, also by Shearman.] Were there any significant changes made between the recording and the book?
No, it’s fully unabridged. I haven’t heard it yet, actually! But I know it was in safe hands. Nick Briggs, who does the Dalek voices on TV, and is a terrific actor besides, was responsible for it. And he’s one of my closest friends — I was best man at his wedding! I would occasionally get happy little text messages from Nick as he recorded it at home, remotely, during lockdown. I’m really looking forward to hearing his performance. He does a very mean Chris Eccleston impression! I want to see what he does with Billie Piper.
[NB: You can hear an excerpt of the Dalek audio here.]
One often hears of the novelizations, back in the day, being the only way to remember the episode. Now that we’ve got digital available on-demand, did that change how you thought about writing the story?
Oh, absolutely. It’s funny, really — a few years ago, at conventions, I’d be asked hypothetically whether I’d ever novelise Dalek, and I was always a bit grand and said no. Because I didn’t see the point of it — all the episodes are so easily available on Netflix! It was because I read Steven Moffat’s book of Day of the Doctor, and Russell’s book of Rose, that I so changed my mind. They were so good on their own terms — not as companions to a bit of old telly. They were fun and insightful and bursting with new ideas, and new ways to interpret the original story.
That was the inspiration. Firstly, to write a book that would utterly stand on its own — and secondly, conversely, to write something that would be full of treats for the fan who knew the episode well. I think there was an argument back in the 1970s that the novelisations existed to replicate the TV experience — but now there’s no point to that, the books really have to offer something completely new.
Would you be interested in writing more Doctor Who? It seems odd, from an outside perspective, that the writer of such a well-received, award-nominated episode only did the one.
I don’t know, really. I loved my stint on Doctor Who — I wrote a number of audio plays for Big Finish, which is how I ended up doing a story for TV. But what I love about the series is that it is a shared narrative. That you have your time to contribute to it, and then you let others take it on. That’s why it will live forever. I feel incredibly proud that I was a Doctor Who writer, but I suspect (quite rightly) that it now tells stories that I wouldn’t tell, and that I write stories that don’t work in the Doctor Who universe. But I’d never say never. It was enormous fun to come back to Doctor Who again, just for a little while!
Are you still watching the show?
Of course! I am a massive Doctor Who fan. Always will be. All these years after I was lucky enough to be on the first series of the revival, it makes me feel so proud of the series that it’s still going strong, that it’s on to its thirteenth Doctor and its thirteenth series! It still excites me and gives me joy the way it always did when I was a boy.
Which of your books is the best starting point for someone new to your works?
I think throwing yourself into We All Hear Stories in the Dark is quite good fun. It’s a massive choose your own adventure book, where you navigate a path through 101 quirky, funny, weird, or scary stories to win back someone from the dead. Every story ends with five questions about how you’ve responded to what you’ve just read, and offering you decisions about what to try next as a consequence. It’s like a modern day Arabian Nights, mixed up with playing a game.
It came out last year, and it’s enormous fun for me to see online people choose their own paths through this strange labyrinth. The idea of the book is that all stories bounce off each other in different ways and are affected by what you’ve just read before or are going to read straight after. And the number of pemutations through the book is so vast that any single reader is almost certainly going to have a unique experience — no one else will ever follow the path you choose, it’s as if you are building your own book based upon the stories you embrace or reject.
What else are you working on right now?
I am talking about some new TV and film for when we come out of lockdown — and maybe some theatre when theatres reopen. (Theatre was always my first love, and how I became a writer!) And I am doing the groundwork for a new novel that I think might be funny and strange and different. It does require a lot of research, though! I have to watch all the Disney cartoons (not so hard) and spend a few months in Moscow (much chillier).
My thanks to Robert Shearman for this insight into the book and how it came about.