Interview with Nigel Robinson

This brief mail interview with Nigel Robinson was conducted back in 1994 for About Time by Kate Orman.
As it appeared in Broadsword issue five

I'd originally submitted the idea for Birthright as a Doctor / Ace / Benny story, when Peter Darvill-Evans rang me to say that he liked the story a lot. However, he felt that the Doctor's role in the book could be improved upon; at the same time, David Banks had submitted Iceberg, in which Ace and Benny apparently played very minor roles. Peter suggested David take out Ace and Benny, and that I rethink Birthright, removing the Doctor completely, and linking it somewhat to Iceberg.

Of course, I realised that Peter was barking mad, but, much to my surprise, the book worked, which means he wasn't quite so daft as I thought. Birthright gave me a great opportunity to investigate the manipulative, calculating side of the Doctor - something I've always been interested in. It was also a lot of fun writing for Benny.

The Edwardian period interested me too: that time just before the First World War was an era of incredible change, where the old traditions mixed very uncomfortably with the new. The motor car and the telephone and the aeroplane had just appeared on the technological scene; on the other hand, people still believed in imps and demons. It's an ideal setting for a tale which mixes "magic" with science fiction.

In 1911 the British Empire still believed it was the greatest power the world had ever known; it took the slaughter of the First World War to force them to change their minds. The British of 1911 were very much like the Charrl, in fact: they arrogantly believed themselves to be the noblest power in the Universe, and they certainly achieved some great things. But just as they had to call on the help of the USA in 1917, so the Charrl had to rely on a mere mammal such as Muldwych for their survival. Don't get me wrong - Birthright is in no way a metaphor for the destruction of the British Empire, but there are parallels between the Charrl and whichever human race might at any time rule the waves.

I had a total of two brief phone calls with David, who basically wanted to know what I was planning on doing with the TARDIS. Other than that we each went our own way, although there are a couple of minor cross-references between the two books.

I'm fairly disciplined in that I try and write a certain number of pages each day. Something like Birthright starts out very, very slowly indeed, with the first fifty pages being the slowest. It's during those pages that you're actually discovering the tone of the book, and getting to know your characters.

I start out with very detailed plot synopses, but in those first fifty or so pages, things usually change dramatically from the basic synopsis. After that, and once I feel comfortable with the story, things start to gather momentum, and it's a struggle just to keep up with the ideas and the stories which spring into my mind. I might start off working as little was three hours a day; towards the end, a daily shift of twelve or more hours is not uncommon.

Once I'd decided that Birthright was set in 1911's London, and that I wanted to show how every single one of the Doctor's actions has effects and after-effects on everyone around him, Margaret Waterfield became a crucial character in the book. She became the symbol of all those people whose lives have been affected by the Doctor, for good or ill, directly or indirectly. If nothing else, she provides a home for Benny who, without her, would have been at a total loss in the early twentieth century.

But more than anything, Margaret reminds us of how the Doc manipulates everything - not for any malevolent purposes but out of sheer necessity. My favourite scene is probably the one in the crematorium where Benny wonders just how far in advance the Doctor had ordered Margaret's funeral flowers. That's one of the disconcerting parts of the Doctor's personality - because he journeys in the past and the future he knows when those close to him are going to die. And he's powerless to prevent it. He had the freedom to travel through time, and yet perversely that freedom also restricts his actions. He might be a Time Lord, but he's also a slave to Time.

I also realised that we never hear of the fuss caused when the Doc's companions vanish off the face of the Earth, either for a couple of years like Ian and Barbara, or forever like Victoria, or Peri. If nothing else, Birthright explains how Victoria could vanish completely from the nineteenth century, and not have the local constabulary register her and her father as missing persons and try and track them down!

The inclusion of other continuity references were there for people to spot if they wanted to, and also to add to my conception of the Doc as a Puppet Master. None of them, however, was planned in advance: they all came about during the actual writing.

For instance, I have the Doctor saving the life of drunkard Ernie Wright from a Charrl. It's certainly a convenient way of introducing the concept of Springheel Jack and the 1911 setting, and that's the main reason for its inclusion. But it's also there because the Doctor, with his foreknowledge, realises that, if Ernie is executed as a murderer, he will never have any sons. And if he has no sons then his grand-daughter Barbara Wright will never be born, and thus the Doctor's own timestream will be dramatically altered.

Similarly with Charlie Jackson, who might just be an ancestor of Ben's; it's in the Doctor's own interest that Ben is born, and so it's fortunate that Benny rescues Charlie from what would probably be an early death in poverty by giving his mother enough money to set up her own business as a seamstress and be able to provide for her family.

I hope the continuity references worked. I think they served a purpose in the book, but I'm totally against using continuity just for the sake of it. Continuity references should always make a point, and they should never spoil the story for someone who might not be that clued up on Who. But they're also an extra treat for the hardened fan.

During my time at Target there was never enough time to do as much editing as I would have liked. I was responsible not just for the Who books, but also the children's list, the non-fiction list, and a sizeable proportion of the adult fiction titles. This was despite my protests to the then Managing Director that Who was essentially a full-time job In fact, the sales of Who books, along with WH Allen's softish-porn "anonymous" range, formed the bedrock of the company!

We were literally on a treadmill, publishing one novelisation a month, and if I had my way the novelisations would have been much longer. There are also a couple which I wouldn't have allowed to have been published in the state they were! I won't mention any titles but you may be able to guess which ones they are!

Because I was something of an expert on Doctor Who, after having written the Quiz Books, I spent a lot of time correcting continuity references. People like Terrance Dicks knew the show backwards of course, but first-time writers often needed a little bit of guidance.

To name a few: Vic Pemberton had the TARDIS landing on a cliff in his original manuscript of Fury from the Deep, until I pointed out that it actually materialised on the sea; Glyn Jones in his sample chapters (which I asked every new writer to submit) called the character of Vicki "Tanni" (her name in the original scripts); and Peter Ling swore blind for weeks that Zoe had long blonde hair till I sent him a video of The Mind Robber (to apologise he took me out for lunch - a very nice man indeed). And of course just about every writer from the Hartnell era called You-Know-Who "Doctor Who"!

I also had an amicable row over the phone with Jon Pertwee about the colour of his hair in Ambassadors of Death (he won).

Probably the manuscripts which needed the least editing were Ian Marter's. The Rescue, for instance, was left "unfinished" at the time of his death. But apart from my adding a couple of scenes here and there, and tidying up a few lines, there was very little work for me to do on his books. He did have a tendency to see how much he could get away with however: I cut an entire scene from the first chapter of The Rescue where he was more or less discussing the delights of fellatio, and I often had to tone down the blood and guts in some of his other novels (I also insisted he change the end of Harry Sullivan's War [originally called War of Nerves] to ensure that our hero survived).

I'm hoping to do another New and/or Missing Adventure and am working in a couple of ideas at the moment. I'm particularly keen on stories set in the past - given that the TARDIS is a time-machine, I feel that few writers take advantage of the fact that it can go backwards, as well as forwards in time.

I'm also doing a series of teenage horror books for Boxtree Books in the UK, and have just finished First Contact, a teenage science fiction for Point Books in the UK. I can't see myself ever leaving Who, at least not by choice. To be totally cliche and unoriginal it's just like a big family with all the traumas, joys and disasters every family has.

The Tolkien Quiz Book was indirectly responsible for my writing Who books. I'd just graduated from University and had a year off with nothing to do (OK, this being the early 80s there weren't any jobs around). An old friend of mine from sixth-form, Linda Wilson, was a fan of the Tolkien books as was I. Like me she was also a bit of a piss artist, and we spent long summer afternoons in pubs testing each other's knowledge on Tolkien's work. We had the bright idea of putting the questions down on paper and sending the completed manuscript to Star Books at WH Allen. They bought the idea.

Of course, WH Allen just happen to publish Doctor Who books as well. Linda hated Who, so I just said to them: "Hey, I'm really into Doctor Who and I think you should have a quiz book on the show..."

The rest, as they might say, is history.

The books of Nigel Robinson:

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