Here’s a transcript of Paul Cornell at a convention in Dublin. You can find videos of the panel on YouTube, and he talks about his work for Marvel etc.; I’ve focused on the ‘Doctor Who’ material from the first part. I met Paul Cornell once, at the ’93 Panopticon thing in London. I was eleven years old and thought ‘Timewrym: Revelation’ was “brilliant”.
Q: How did you end up working on ‘Doctor Who’?
A: Well this is sort of my life’s work, ‘Doctor Who’. Everything revolves around ‘Doctor Who’ to some degree, since that flip-flop moment when I decided to watch ‘The Brain of Morbius’ after avoiding watching ‘Doctor Who’ for so long because I thought it was far too scary, and the playground regarded it as something like a slasher movie, and I thought ‘Why do they subject themselves to that?’. And at the age of nine, I decided I was getting too old not to watch ‘Doctor Who’. So I watched ‘The Brain of Morbius’, and after four episodes when the Doctor beat the monster I was amazed. I had this huge Road to Damascus experience, or Road to Karn, and all my childhood fiction became fan fiction, which eventually got published in fanzines, and I realised I had an audience for this inner thing, and this inner thing has become my business, my lifestyle. How fortunate is that?
Q: You once suggested a panel on ‘Schoolyard Bullying as a Prerequisite for Doctor Who Fandom’.
A: Yes, absolutely. 90% of ‘Doctor Who’ fans have a history of being bullied, and 90% of the current writing team do, the ones I’ve asked. I think in many ways ‘Doctor Who’ is a show about bullying, monsters come along and want to bully you, and they’re stronger than you, and the Doctor’s the intellectual hero who, well, he’s been bullied in all sorts of ways. Russell claims he wasn’t bullied as a child, but a gay child, a gay man who’s put himself against gay culture in a lot of ways – they’ve never forgiven him for ‘Bob and Rose’, he knows what it’s like to be bullied, I think.
Q: There was that fifteen-year period between old ‘Doctor Who’ and new ‘Doctor Who’…
A: I think it’s a good system for telefantasy shows, that they have a fallow period. It’s like crop rotation. You have 75% on television, 25% fallow, so that new things can develop. ‘Star Trek’ has been through a fallow period. James Bond kind of did it without being fallow, although there’s a big gap there after Timothy Dalton. And in those fallow periods, the fans start working professionally. And that’s sort of what happened to ‘Doctor Who’ in those fifteen years. All of us who were fans, sort of thought about how the show worked, and between us we sort of worked out the nuts and bolts of ‘Doctor Who’ and started competing with each other. There was Big Finish, the different lines of books…
Q: Who was involved in that, then?
A: There’s kind of a Venn diagram. From the first season of ‘Doctor Who’ writers, the only one who hadn’t contributed to a BBC or Virgin ‘Doctor Who’ book was Rob Shearman, and the only one who hadn’t done anything for Big Finish was Moffat, although he’d had a story in a Big Finish book. A lot of the tropes of modern ‘Who’ comes from those books.
Q: What was the first ‘Doctor Who’ novel you wrote?
A: The first ‘Doctor Who’ novel was ‘Revelation’, the fourth of the ‘Timewyrm’ books, which was… I was living in Manchester, and was contributing to radio sketch shows out of Manchester, I’d already won a place on a BBC2 short play contest, but there were huge gaps of nothing opening up. I’d got a letter from Peter Darvill-Evans, the editor of the ‘Doctor Who’ book range, saying ‘If you’re not careful, you’ll be writing one of our novels’, and I remember literally jumping up and down in my hallway.
I had a direct line from the stories I first started writing as a kid, as essays, (which) featured some of the characters who then appeared in my fan fiction. I adapted a piece of my fan fiction for the ‘Doctor Who’ novels, I adapted one of my ‘Doctor Who’ novels for ‘Doctor Who’. There is a direct line. I’m really pleased with that.
It was a bit like ‘The Right Stuff’, we were all waiting… this group of fan fiction writers, waiting to see who would be the next one of us to get a ‘Doctor Who’ novel. So it’s be ‘Oh, there’s Andy Lane, there’s Jim Mortimore’. And we had one guy, actually, like ‘The Right Stuff’, who was the leading fan fiction writer, who never did it! He just stayed writing fan fiction.
Q: You also did TV guides, you did an episode guide for ‘Doctor Who’ and…
A: ‘The X-Files’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Avengers’. Me, Keith Topping and Martin Day. We invented that thing of chopping things up into little pieces and just looking at the little pieces. It was prevalent in the 1990’s, but everybody stopped eventually because I think it got really boring.
Q: While ‘Doctor Who’ was off-air, there was an enormous amount of material generated, and those novels are worth taking into the canon –
A: Oh dear, don’t say the word canon. I just don’t think there is such a thing as canon in ‘Doctor Who’. And carefully, and it has to be carefully – the silence is just so big and obvious – there’s no-one in the ‘Doctor Who’ production office who has ever declared anything about canon. There’s two reasons for this, chiefly, one is that Russell thinks this whole conversation is remarkably geeky and he doesn’t want to go anywhere near it, but on the other hand his reaction to that could be ‘So, I will declare that only the TV show matters, nothing else matters’, but he’s never done that. So unlike Paramount (‘Star Trek’) and ‘Star Wars’, we do not have a canon in ‘Doctor Who’. This has given us remarkable plasticity and power as a show. Also, and I don’t know if this is the case, but I think maybe Russell doesn’t want someone who’s reading the ‘Doctor Who’ novels from the new ones to think ‘This doesn’t count’.
Q: Some of the stuff, though, like the Time War, is deemed to have happened.
A: Well the Time Lords rewrote an awful lot of history, so you could say that all of ‘Doctor Who’ history, in all media, did happen at some point, and then unhappened! Van Statten in ‘Dalek’, in the first season, is a great big entrepreneur with an interest in aliens, who lives in the year 2018 or something, who has never seen or heard of a Dalek, despite them having invaded Earth last Christmas. Because of the time travel, the show rewrites its own continuity. So everything did and didn’t happen.