Immortal Beloved

immortal-belovedThe Dr Who Guide alerts me to the fact that my radio play Immortal Beloved was broadcast on BBC7 on this day ten years ago. So in its honour, I post up the text of the interview that Kenny Smith did with me for Finished Product magazine.

KS: Firstly, was the finished story the one you always intended to go with? Or did you have other story ideas? Were you asked to submit an outline, and how detailed was it?

The story actually started out very differently, around 2002, as a Strontium Dog script. Toby Longworth asked me if I’d write something with Sanjeev Bhaskar in mind, so I had a character called Vishnu Patel, a six-armed mutant from Bradford, and his sexy associate Carly. The idea was that they’d set off a time grenade on their ship as the Strontium Dogs were getting ready to capture it. Suddenly, the ship was gone, but the formerly barren planet below was covered with city lights. At which point the bounty hunters would realise that their prey had gone so far back in time that they had founded an entire civilisation on the planet, and set themselves up as its divine rulers, an idea lifted from Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. The bounty hunters go down to apprehend them, and have to face the issue of the person they’re arresting being the nth generation clone of the person they were chasing. Then there would have been all sorts of arguments about statutes of limitations, and time travel and culpability.

But anyway, Strontium Dog was cancelled, and I was asked to pitch something for the short-lived Richard E. Grant animated Doctor Who. I retooled the story but kept its original title, which back then was Kingmaker. That actually made it a long way through the process before that, too, was cancelled.

doctorwho-screamoftheshalka218 months later, the BBC’s option on Kingmaker ran out, and I was asked if I’d do something for the McGanns. Time was really of the essence, because everything had to be done in ten minutes flat, or something daft. So I said to Big Finish, look, I’ve got Kingmaker here, the BBC have already approved it. That’s going to go through a lot faster. So we went with that, under a working title of Sins of the Father. I gave [script editor] Alan Barnes some alternate titles, including Karma Police, Together Forever, and Immortal Beloved.

Of course, you can imagine, the outline was nicely matured by that point. It was about 3500 words long, for a script that needed to be 10,000 words total. So it was very well worked out by that point.

There was originally a lot more in there about cybernetic implants as well, in order to match with the Master, who featured in the Richard E. Grant scripts as a travelling companion.

51ijm9-tel-_sx330_bo1204203200_There are still elements of the original, such as when Zeus threatens to kill a different Lucie every day for a hundred years, and a Lord of Light moment, when Hera remembers that Poseidon’s original name was Jeffrey.

Life and death are strong themes in the Sympathy for the Devil and Immortal Beloved – are these themes that you’re interested in exploring?

I’m more interested in what makes us who we are. Same in Sympathy for the Devil. Take the characters out of the situations you remember them in, and what do they do? The Doctor is still the Doctor, the Brigadier is still ultimately his ally, the Master is still a sneaky git. The Ke Le Divisions are supposed to be non-human, like clones, but they still end up with feelings, and those feelings backfire.

In Immortal Beloved, I wanted to ask questions about cloning. I don’t know the answers, but I like asking the questions. I love the idea of these clones turning into their parents, of being able to see them at two stages in their lives simultaneously, and wondering which one is the real person.

Jason Haigh-Ellery jumped on this one right away. I heard that back when it was still Kingmaker, he was already telling people that he was going to direct it, and even threatening to make it as a Big Finish with another Doctor if the BBC didn’t commission it as a Richard E. Grant. I don’t know why he was so enthusiastic about this one in particular, but he was supporting it for two years before it actually went into production! He wouldn’t let the idea drop, he really fought for it.

How did you find writing for a new Doctor/companion team? Were you given much in the way of pointers for Lucie (played by Sheridan Smith)? Did she turn out the way you’d hoped?

This one was great because Lucie is so bolshie. Her dialogue just writes itself, taking the piss out the Doctor all the time, referring to him as her assistant, ridiculing his navigation skills. The perfect Lucie line is actually in Jonathan Morris’s Max Warp, when she calls the TARDIS a shed. I just wrote her as everyone’s annoying big sister walking in while you’re trying to watch Doctor Who and ridiculing everything. So yes, she was perfect. Note-perfect, exactly as I imagined her.

What did you think of the finished story?

I thought it was great. I was rather irked that the BBC announcer said it was set in Ancient Greece, which it wasn’t. I actually had a very nice email from someone at BBC7 telling me who was responsible “just so you know we’re not a bunch of monkeys.” It turned out that the culprit was much closer to home at BF towers. I was present for the ceremonial flaying and keelhauling.

mv5bmtuxndg4mzm3mf5bml5banbnxkftztywmdexntk2-_v1_sx640_sy720_Weren’t the cast great!

Ian McNeice! You can’t do better than that. Frankly, I wrote it for him, without even realising it. I had Baron Harkonnen in mind as Zeus, without knowing that Ian had played Baron Harkonnen in the Sci Fi channel Dune.

One day my grandfather fell off a ladder and knocked himself out. My grandmother found him and thought he was dead. She grabbed him and said: “No! You can’t go! Not yet! I’m not ready!” I put a lot of that into the lines Elspet Gray had to say as Hera, particularly her scene in the garden. My grandmother said to me shortly before she died: “Jonathan, don’t get old. Don’t get old.” It was so mournful and heartfelt, but I remember thinking at the time, do I have a choice…? All that’s in Hera’s lines, and I think Elspet managed it very well.

Was it how you imagined it to be?

Yes, although Ganymede was a bit of a surprise, since he wasn’t in my script when I delivered it.

I believe that the ending was slightly different – Sarati was ‘poisoned’, to simulate death, thanks to the Doctor. As a result, Kalkin stabbed Zeus. How did the change come about? Are you happy with the revised change?

Yeah, the ending was different when I thought I was writing a 100-minute story. The only real difficulty with Immortal Beloved was slicing it down from 100 minutes for Richard E. Grant to 50 minutes for Paul McGann. Your question implies that was done for me, but I’m pretty sure that I wrote the Sararti stabbing scene myself. So it was all about timing — obviously the poison business was another Romeo and Juliet reference that got edged out. I thought it worked fine without it in the end, but something had to go when 50% of the content was being cut.

How much fun did you have coming up with alternative names for everyday things, like helicopters, etc? Was it a real challenge to get something mythological sounding for things like a decontamination chamber? Did you come up with any more that were cut or changed?

The “magic wand” business was something that had been floating around my head for 20 years, ever since I read the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Look at what it says about the “charges” and powers of magic wands, and rods, and staves. It’s describing firearms: pistols, carbines and rifles. I thought that was so cool. So, I guess that’s my way of saying that it wasn’t my idea at all, but Gary Gygax’s.

I think other people had more fun with it than I did. The “ether trumpet” was someone else’s line. Nick Briggs, perhaps, or it could have been Alan, I suppose. It is the funniest line in the play, and I am now obliged to tell everyone I didn’t write it.

The notion of cloned Lucies being tortured is quite scary – copies of yourself dying in different ways, without you even knowing it. Do you like implied horror like that?

Actually I can’t stand horror. I find it too horrific. I am paid to have an over-active imagination, and horror tends to scare me! I think it’s an excellent way of reversing the standard questions about stem cells and cloning, though. You lose your arm, but there is a magical way of giving you a new arm… except somewhere, there is a copy of you who’s just had his arm hacked off… I think *that* is horrific.

How did you find writing for the McGann Doctor? I felt you had him down to a T – plenty of enthusiasm, but with a serious streak. Did you listen to many of the other Big Finish releases, or did you just write a generic Doctor that you remembered from childhood, as Rob Shearman did?

Is that what Rob did? Oh, bless! I suppose I did, too. There wasn’t a lot to go on with McGann because you only have the one TV outing. I listened to Chimes of Midnight, but more because it was Rob’s not because it was McGann.

To be honest, it’s Lucie that I write for with the McGanns. I find it easier to write the Doctor’s loving exasperation with her, than I do to write the Doctor himself. Lucie thinks of herself as the heroine in her own little show, and I write it that way, and then I put the Doctor’s reaction in later — his reaction being the actual plot and everything. There’s an element of that in Immortal Beloved where she introduces the Doctor as her “bumbling assistant.”

I  have to say, I only heard Brave New Town yesterday, and Sheridan Smith nails it. She nails every line. At her very worst, she does exactly what I wanted. At her best, she takes it and does something I never even thought of. You can’t ask for more than that, can you?

Big Finish don’t let you write “generic” Doctors, though. Briggs will throw something back at you and say: “That won’t work, it’s too Sixth Doctor.” You can actually give him words, single words, and he will tell you if a particular Doctor would use them or not. So whatever Rob thought he was doing, it will have been distinctively McGann by the third draft!

Anything you’d go back and change if you could?

There’s a line that someone altered that I wish they hadn’t, but there’s also a line that someone altered which made me look a lot smarter than I really am, so I figure we’d better call it quits.

If you could be reincarnated in another body, whose would you go for?

Ooh, Jason Haigh-Ellery’s. All that money, all those women, all that power…

Immortal Beloved is available on CD and download from Big Finish.

Dreamers of the Day

Some time ago I was asked to contribute something to a very special book, in which several writers approached the subject of Doctor Who encountering Lawrence of Arabia. I chose to concentrate on Lawrence’s attendance at the Paris Peace Conference, and because I could only spare two days to do it, wrote it as a 300-line poem.  The book was made as a very personal wedding gift for a Dr Who fan from his frankly loopy wife, so I think there are only about five copies in existence. And I’ve got one! I usually write for money, so it’s probably the only fan fiction I am ever likely to produce, but I was quite pleased to have crammed all 12 Doctors into a single work. There are many Easter Eggs in here for those who know the worlds of Who… or indeed Lawrence, or I suppose, the Paris Peace Conference.

————————

Ohana hungered for the gaze

Of others, basking in the praise of their attentions at Grand Balls

At gin-soaked parties, vaulted halls. She waited eagerly for cards

Of invitation – vellum shards for Hotel Somethings, Palais Thats

Where through a sea of diplomats she’d glide in elegant brocades,

Black hair a sculpture in pomades, her skin a doll-like ivory

A beauty there for all to see. Some of the men had brought their wives

Who stared at her with eyes like knives and whispered that this child of Asia

Was merely a transplanted geisha, which was the truth. And to be sure,

She was a youthful twenty-four, a little girl from far away,

Her task to make an evening gay with laughter, jokes or samisen

A haiku line or five or ten. A revered art in Tokyo

But here in Europe, who could know her fine poetic masteries

When only parsed in Japanese? Unable to correct this flaw,

They thought her just Saionji’s whore. Her aging Prince, with leathered face

Could wow the crowd with mots francais. He spoke it well to much delight

And so at every Paris night, when talk soon turned to books and songs,

The Conference and righting wrongs, Saionji got along just fine.

Ohana sunk her woes in wine. She sneaked out to the balconies

For cigarettes in twos and threes. She walked among the breathless throng

A sight that lasted for too long. A striking red-clad Japanese

Amazed Versailles societies, but with the summer turning cold

She felt her novelty grow old. A newer belle called Oei Hui-Lan

Fluttered beneath a feathered fan. She chased the Chinese delegate

And caused the press to speculate that marriage might be on the way,

Which made the news reporters’ day but left Ohana in the dust.

Though stay she did, as stay she must. The jealous women bad enough,

Ohana found it even tougher dealing with the leering men

Who gathered at the bar, and then would proffer drinks or light a match

And always try their best to snatch a foreign woman to their bed.

She hated them. Except for Ned. Continue reading

Survival of the Fittest

Out now in shops, my Doctor Who: Survival of the Fittest, for which I was asked to give Sylvester McCoy an unrepentant Nazi for a travelling companion. Herewith my 150 words from the liner notes:

My grandmother was convinced she’d been had. After gassing the nest and plugging up the holes, the exterminator returned a few days later to check on it. When he unplugged the entrance, a bunch of wasps flew out and away. But he assured us that the nest was dead, and that the fugitives were merely the last hatchlings, from post-apocalyptic eggs.

The idea of insect civilisation brings questions of its own. How would it operate? How would they feel about being born, already forced into incontrovertible specialisms? As her first act after hatching, a newborn bee queen will murder her twin sister in the neighbouring cocoon. Every insect must know its place. When Big Finish asked me to think on the implications of taking Klein’s ideology to logical conclusions, I drew on my childhood memories, and the concept of a group of creatures, born alone in the dark in the ruins of their world, then freed to fly away to an unknown fate. Where did they think they were going? Were they only following orders?

But there’s more; there always is. As with most scripts, there was a long process of pitching and repitching before everybody was happy with the ideas on the table. “Survival of the Fittest” was in my mind because at the time I was writing a book about Charles Darwin, and I was fascinated at the time with the pull exerted on early Darwinists by the eugenics movement, which, of course, fed into Nazism. I initially wanted to write something about the First Emperor of China, who really took fascism to its logical conclusion. He was raised by what was known in those days as Legalists, people who would do anything to get into power and anything to stay there. The legal system of his Qin dynasty included punitive maiming and institutionalised bribery, while many lower classes were reduced to super-specialised slaves, door-openers and power sources. Hence my original pitch, which was called The Hidden Offices, taking its name from the title of the First Emperor’s personnel division for disabled slaves.

But Big Finish wanted something interstellar and far-ranging, so instead I pitched the concept of a world high above the galactic plane, where the Milky Way itself spun “like a swastika in the sky.” My working title, in fact, was Swastika Night. There was some stuff in there about warp cores and gravity wells, too, and a malfunctioning drive that had marooned human colonists millions of light years away from a solar system large enough to truly support them, forced instead to struggle for lebensraum with indigenous insectoids.

I wanted insects because of the parallels between hive societies and a fascist regimes. But once I had insects, I was drawn inevitably to a recurring issue in my Doctor Who scripts: how does the TARDIS translation circuit actually work? If everything somebody says is translated fully, why do we hear accents? Are accents part of semantics, in which case should we hear stress in unstressed languages? What size of area does TARDIS translation affect? What happens when it’s gone? And in this case, what happens when communication is conducted by pheromones and scents? When creatures have no vocal chords, how would the TARDIS render their communication?

When I realised that there would be little scope for humour, sarcasm or untruths in a pheromone-based communication system, I had my story. And then it was down to producer David Richardson and director John Ainsworth to make all the actors play creatures that communicated by smell. Everybody likes a challenge.

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

Copper Handles

On to Vancouver, where I have spent several days amassing an insane amount of material on the First Nations, particularly the Inuit, Kwakwaka’wakw and Haida. Still not totally sure what I am doing with it, but I’ve already written about Native Americans a couple of times, both as part of the history of Vinland, and in my Doctor Who short story “Nonsense Songs of the MicMac Indians.” I can feel a new story beginning to form on a similar topic. It has been bubbling away for several years, but this trip has finally allowed the pieces to fall into place.

At the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, I listened to Kwakwaka’wakw expert Jennifer Kramer talking about the politics of repatriation, and the pains taken by the museum to treat First Nations artefacts with respect. The textile drawers in the museum’s new gallery all have copper handles, because copper is a precious, sacred metal to the peoples of the North-West coast. Such a weird, hypnotic detail to the ruminating author…

Metal is so scarce in the frozen north. Nails from European ships have severely muddied the waters of scholarship when it comes to estimates about early explorers. Ripped from wrecks or traded at the periphery for furs and food, they have travelled far to the south and west, a much greater distance than the ships on which they arrived.

And the words… oh, the words. So few languages are alien enough for me these days. But here in Canada, I get to hear words like Nunavut. Nuu-cha-nulth. Kwakwaka’wakw. Nuxalk. I am lost in arcane euphonies, and loving it.

Cattle Call

yuri-lowenthal-tara-platt-voice-actors-588x600“Actors,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “are cattle.” You control them with a pointy stick. You tell them where to stand. You leave them in a field all day, chewing regurgitated grass. You pull on their teats when you need a drink. No, I am not entirely sure where he was going with that. But actors should definitely do what they’re told, otherwise how will the director’s vision make it to the audience? Actors are the vital conduit between text and audience. And they make empty, melancholy mooing noises with bovine regularity.

I have had to sit, powerless in a studio, while actors droned on about how I had made factual mistakes in my script for their bewilderingly popular, 30-year-old franchise. In the recording booth, I reminded the director that we had copies of the DVD on site that would prove the actors wrong. He shrugged and said it was too much trouble. It was then I started wishing for a cattle prod. Continue reading