The sound of monsters

on 28 March 2011. Posted in Radio

william gallagher and jason arnoppWilliam Gallagher (left) and Jason Arnopp discuss their experiences writing Doctor Who audio dramas produced by Big Finish

Jason Arnopp: I'd always admired Big Finish as a fine example of a company which grew itself from scratch, pulling off that tricky combination of fannish enthusiasm and real professionalism, while building an empire of spin-off full-cast audio drama. I'm a lifelong Doctor Who fan and was interested in audio - in particular, the atmospheric possibilities of that medium.  So I contacted Big Finish script editor Alan Barnes, told him about the films I'd written before and threw an outline idea for a story at him. It was the creepy, Blair Witch-esque affair that would become the title-story of the anthology The Demons Of Red Lodge & Other Stories. To my delight, he not only liked it, but didn't want any changes to that outline. How did you get the job yourself, William?  

William Gallagher: It sounds quick and obvious in retrospect, but I was working on a BBC drama project and got the chance to write for Moray Laing, editor of Doctor Who Adventures magazine. You can't have a good lunch with me without gathering somehow that I am a drama nut and that I adore radio drama, so shortly after I started there Moray introduced me to Alan Barnes at Big Finish. I pitched a couple of ideas and though I think it must've taken a couple of years, one of those fitted what he was looking for in this CD and I was commissioned to write Doing Time last January. And I tell you, the day I wrote my first line of dialogue for the Doctor I genuinely got a shiver. I didn't expect that. What is it about Doctor Who? 

Jason: Doctor Who is absolutely ingrained, hard-wired, into so many people's childhoods. It probably made many of us want to be writers in the first place - that was certainly true for me. And I think that when you find yourself writing for an incarnation of the Doctor with which you grew up (in my case Peter Davison), that Doctor's voice comes quite easily, if not effortlessly, to mind. But yes, I definitely felt that shiver. After that, you just get on with the business of serving the story and the characters and the audience well, don't you? You'd written radio drama before, whereas I had worked in radio sketch comedy, so had a few new things to learn, particularly when it came to making scene transitions clear. It's easy enough to do it, but harder to do it without shouting exposition at the listener and starting each scene with "Doctor, look - we've walked into a forest at night, with dense trees!"  

William: Scene transitions were easy for me because I hear the story that way: not as a sequence of separate scenes but one whole. I started out in BBC local radio producing packages and learnt to build sequences. I enjoy knowing just when to cut and just when to linger. Plus, radio audiences are very, very fast at picking up the tiniest clues and I am that audience myself: I've heard gorgeous plays where scenes change mid-syllable and I've heard plenty where they don't. But then in post-production Big Finish added a piano piece to the end of a particular scene and it was exquisite. Just a perfect transition. I will ask for them in all future scenes, everywhere. The much harder, newer thing for me was that it's not Doctor Who unless you have a monster: I believe fervently that the best monsters are people. So I did write a roaring monster but I made him a side character while I concentrated on a very human villain. You're a horror writer, did you find monsters easier than I did?

Jason: I do like a bit of horror – all right, a lot of horror – and so monstrosities tend to parade from my brain with some ease. I do believe that Doctor Who always needs a monster and these generally must be as menacing and alien as possible. I take your point, though, that sometimes a human(oid) villain such as The Master or Davros can be more interesting – there's certainly more of a debate to be had between them and the Doctor. Happily, the show often enjoys the best of both worlds, with seemingly human villains who transform into all kinds of abominations, and I follow that tradition in The Demons Of Red Lodge. I'm certainly glad we both got to visit Big Finish's studio on the day that our stories were recorded.  I had a great time watching Peter Davison (The Doctor) and Sarah Sutton (companion Nyssa) saying my dialogue – how did you enjoy the experience?

William: It was embarrassing. I've just produced a Radio Times video that involved filming a clutch of star names and I was entirely blasé (or, as I believe others call it, professional). But standing there in Big Finish's studio I think I convinced Peter Davison I was a starstruck fan – because as we first shook hands I spotted Sarah Sutton behind him. I had such a crush on her when she was Nyssa in the TV show and when I was somewhat younger than I am. Such a crush that the studio day ended with her saying ‘Thank you for a lovely script’ to me and my replying, quite suavely ‘Gibber’. Otherwise it was perfectly normal. To be serious, it's a smart production and I am enjoying working with them, enjoying getting drama on its feet and collaborating not as the writer who never shows up but all of us together and hands on. 

Jason: I must also confess to a little gibbering in that studio. There, that feels better. And yes, Big Finish is great for encouraging that collaborative process. In the world of film, I've been lucky to form an alliance with the brilliant director Dan Turner. After making a couple of shorts and developing various projects together. we shot a horror film called Stormhouse last year, on which I was writer and executive producer.  The latter title, in this case, basically means I have much more creative input and control than the average writer.  I must admit that, while writing audio, I often miss that ability to tell all with a single image. Audio and audio/visual drama are very different beasts, but with equal strengths. Chief among the audio medium's advantages, of course, is unlimited visual budget.

William Gallagher can be found on Twitter as @wgallagher.

Jason Arnopp  on Twitter as @jasonarnopp.

 The Demons Of Red Lodge & Other Stories is out now on CD and download from Big Finish Productions