Marc platt interview

In Conversation With Eddie

Marc Platt has the distinction of having the last “classic” episode of Doctor Who filmed in the highly acclaimed Ghost Light. He was also one of the movers and shakers in Andrew Cartmel’s planned shake up of the programme in the late 80s and has written one of the most iconic and fiercely contested NAs ever, Lungbarrow. I found him in the cloisters of Big Finish Towers, and subjected him to The Mind Probe…

How did you get the commission for Ghost Light?

I’d been sending story ideas to the Doctor Who office for about ten years, and over that period there had been a gradual increase in interest with each story. Standard rejections, personalized rejections, visit to Chris Bidmead’s office, lunch with Eric Saward. I think I was very lucky when Andrew Cartmel took me under his wing and guided me through the writing process, alternatively prodding me and encouraging me in the right direction. The first story that Andrew read of mine was Cat’s Cradle, which eventually transmogrified into the book Time’s Crucible. Andrew knew that to realise the story properly would take up most of a season’s budget, so he asked for another storyline. The result was Shrine, set in 19th century Russia, with alien priests seeking the reincarnation of their spiritual leader and trying to kidnap the wrong one. That was when I was invited along to Andrew’s office. After that meeting, we worked on Lungbarrow about the Doctor’s return to his own lost home and family on Gallifrey, but when John Nathan-Turner decided that we were revealing too much too soon, we took the element of the Doctor’s worst place in the universe and turned it into Ace’s nightmare instead with Ghost Light.

A lot of TV writers are disappointed by what ends up on screen. What did you think of the finished product?

We are exactly twenty years on from Ghost Light and I still love it to bits. Its energy surprises me. Of course there are things that could have gone better. It was over-long, and so the editing is gaspingly tight. All three episodes need an extra five minutes, not so much for plot expansion, but for time to breathe. What you also learn on your first story is how much other people bring to your work. They find things even the author didn’t know were there. Alan Wareing’s direction added depth, clarity and momentum to proceedings, and the endeavours both costume and set designers went to get both the overall feel and the intricate period detail were extraordinary. The terrific cast, even if some of them famously claimed not to understand parts of the script, went at it with great dedication and faith. Sometimes actors just run on instinct. I certainly couldn’t be disappointed with that… just wholeheartedly grateful.

Were you aware at the time it would be the last produced Who in a long while?

The production team may have had inklings, but the writers certainly didn’t. We were all beavering away at the next season.

There was much talk of The Cartmel Masterplan in the years since, but Andrew himself seems to distance himself from there actually being such a thing. How did you perceive it at the time?

The ‘Masterplan’ as such was something that the magazines came up with in their need to label and pigeonhole things. It’s closer to think of it as more of a mood and direction for the series. Both Andrew and Ben Aaronovitch wanted the series to be darker. The Doctor had a past which we didn’t know about. Andrew would say, “The Doctor knows what’s going on.” I’m not sure that I agreed totally with that, but it was a good place to start. This dark past would be alluded to and it was suggested that the Doctor was somehow involved in the early genesis of the Time Lords. But at that point, even in the proposed Lungbarrow, there was nothing too explicit. That came later.

Were you going to write for the next series? What would that have been?

I was asked to produce a story featuring the return of the Ice Warriors. I planned to set it on a terraformed Mars – an industrial-scaled pasture planet which sees the reawakening of the former Martian civilisation. Andrew wanted a story set in Sixties London. JNT wanted to use the London Dungeon as a location. And it was to have been Ace’s final story where the Doctor gets her enrolled at the Academy on Gallifrey – with hilarious results obviously. So there would have been lots to juggle with.

Your next official foray into Whodom was Time’s Crucible, again a complicated tale of Time-folk – is the history of Gallifrey of particular fascination to you?

I was intrigued by the differences in the Gallifrey that we see in Deadly Assassin with everything we’d seen about Time Lords before that. It became a sort of exercise in slotting all the conflicting details and knowledge together. How could such an all-powerful society become so remote, fusty and sterile? How did such an iconic figure as Rassilon come to power and what did he do to become so utterly revered? And, sneaking about in the shadows, what part did the Doctor (or whoever he was before he was the Doctor) have in it all?

Surprisingly, after Time’s Crucible it was a while before you wrote another novel. Why was this?

Well, I did have a full-time job at the BBC, and there was also Downtime, both the video and the novelization, during that period. Yeti can be time-consuming!

Tell me about Lungbarrow – probably the most iconic NA ever written. How did those ideas come about? Were they really going to appear as written on TV? Do you think they fit in with the ‘canon’ of the series? Has the new series scuppered this?

When the Paul McGann TV film was announced, the BBC grabbed back the rights to Doctor Who novels from Virgin, so with the New Adventures series coming to a close, something was needed to tie up the loose threads set up in the novels and the TV series. Ben Aaronovitch suggested to Rebecca Levene at Virgin that Lungbarrow was the right story for the job.

I’d felt that after thirty-odd years of learning so much about Doctor Who, the Who bit had lost its impact and it needed putting back. Obviously we couldn’t ignore everything we already knew about the Doctor, but if we explained his roots and family and home in some detail, we could then knock all that aside with new questions which would restore the mystery. That fitted very much with what Andrew and Ben had wanted to do with the old TV series, but in the books, particularly faced with a new regime taking over, there was a feeling that much of what all those writers had been working for would be unfinished or lost unless it was resolved here.

Lungbarrow certainly doesn’t go against the canon of the TV series. It’s just that we hadn’t seen the families of cousins or the living houses before. It’s no different from an alien arriving in London who has no idea about the culture in Japan or Madagascar. I really cringed at the idea of the Doctor being half-human. That was unimaginative and had been done so often on Star Trek. Everything on Gallifrey is hidebound in bureaucracy, hence the thorny question of everyone being born from the family looms. But the looms are also Rassilon’s solution to the terrible curse laid on Gallifrey by the Pythia when Rassilon seizes power. And throughout, the Doctor’s part in all this remains a mystery. At the end of Lungbarrow, quite correctly, there are more unanswered questions than there are at the start.

Of course, the new series has its own new ideas, but that’s not a problem. It’s an alternative direction. Both versions exist.

You’ve of course written a couple of novelisations as well as original novels – do you have a preference? Are they different disciplines?

They shouldn’t be different at all.

Why didn’t you write a BBC EDA/PDA? I know you were missed…

I was asked to send in a synopsis for something, but never heard anything back.

Your Big Finish work is very broad. Do you have a favourite Doctor to write for?

Each Doctor is special in his own way. They all have their idiosyncrasies and styles. One Doctor’s story shouldn’t fit another’s. If I have a favourite, it’s probably the one I’m writing at the time. Or Geoffrey Bayldon, who is rather wonderful.

Which do you prefer? Full cast plays or the Chronicles?

I like them both. Although I do really enjoy the way that the Chronicles let us explore the lives and thoughts of characters who have maybe been a bit overshadowed in the past.

You’re very detailed in your continuity, I’m guessing canon is important to you? I asked Nick this question too: does canon fit in happily with BF and particularly the new series? I know Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen borrowed concepts from your own BF Spare Parts…

Of course continuity’s important. I have a huge respect for what went before and in one way it’s like a huge toybox of ideas to play with. But it should never get in the way. We should always create something new as well. In the case of Age of Steel and Spare Parts, it’s all about parallels. We were both drawing from the same original source. Some ideas are similar, and some go off on different tangents.

On the subject of the new series, briefly, what do you think of it? And the choice of Doctors, etc?

Its mammoth success shows what we already knew. The concept is pretty nigh inexhaustible. It wears out writers, actors, producers, but whoever comes to it next finds new angles. The new Doctor will surprise us. That’s something worth cheering, isn’t it?

Your next BF project is Paper Cuts – bringing to an end a huge Charley Pollard arc. How did you approach this? Did you have a shopping list to go through?

It’s the middle of a trilogy of stories. All Nick asked for really was a Sixth Doctor and Charley story set in the coldness of space with Draconians. Actually, Nick is dealing with the Charley story far more than I am. I just had to know the situation and drop a few hints. But I jumped at playing with the Draconians. Frontier in Space makes their culture very Japanese in style, which gives me huge amounts to work with: the strictly honour-based society, the mix of formal elegance and savage ferocity, ancestor worship, the reverent pursuit of beauty. And the Doctor has ties with the Imperial past of Draconia, which means that he’s up to his neck in trouble right from the start. It should be great fun.

Next up you’ve the privilege of bringing Susan back in the brilliantly titled An Earthly Child… what can you tell us about that? I’m guessing it was a bit of a thrill…

It’s something quite special. A bit like joining two opposite ends of time. The Doctor finally meeting up with his own grand-daughter Susan, some twenty years after he deliberately left her behind on Earth, is a rather emotional and touching experience. And naturally she has a few surprises for him as well. She’s spent two decades on a decimated alien world, and to survive she’s becomes a lot tougher. It’s fascinating for the Doctor to be backfooted for once and to see how he copes.

And again, the BF tends to contradict “established” continuity in that Susan and David are childless…

Who said that? I had no idea! Bit late for a rewrite now! Will you tell Susan or shall I? (John Peel, in the EDAs! – Ed)

What do you have coming up in the future?

Circling overhead at the moment are one of the lost Colin Baker stories from a rather wonderful storyline by Barbara Clegg (of Enlightenment fame), something else with the Fifth Doctor, another Companion Chronicle with (Companion deleted) and something else even more annoyingly unmentionable. Sorry, I hate blogs that do that, but there are at least four guns at my head!

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