In April 2014, I made contact with David Richardson – ostensibly to ask if the subscriber bonus short story I’d written for him the previous June had been recorded, but in truth to remind him that he’d told me I could pitch for a Companion Chronicle. He asked for my ideas for a Susan and First Doctor story, and I said I’d pull a few together: almost immediately, however, I got another email, from somebody I didn’t know: Michael Stevens.
Michael introduced himself as a commissioning editor who had been working at Audio Go when they produced the audiobook of my New Series Adventure, The Many Hands. Big Finish had asked Michael to produce a new series of Short Trips, and David Richardson – perhaps because I was still fresh in his mind – had suggested I might be interested in writing one or two of them.
Michael was looking for one line pitches including a specified Doctor and companion. Some of the ideas I did link to a particular team – such as an Ace meets the Mercury 13 story inspired by Helen Keen’s It Is Rocket Science. But most of the ideas I had were pitched for a generic Doctor: I didn’t want to take the risk of having an idea turned down because I’d linked it too strongly to a team that were already over-subscribed.
Some of the ideas came from my ever-expanding list of failed pitches for other things: an Adric story based on something pitched for Short Trips: Zodiac; a cicada invasion idea adapted from a radio play that didn’t win the Alfred Bradbury Award; a tale of a spectral black dog that visits its victims’ dreams before they die. But – aware that my collection of old ideas had been thinned out recently – I also came up with a couple of new ones. One came just as I sent the email to Michael, because I thought the list was a bit too short: an vague idea about broken robots assigned to the scrapheap, which I expected to be turned down. It was included only because I thought my own views on the Coalition Government’s benefits cuts would keep me interested if I did have to come up with a fictionalised version of their impact.
Getting the Story
Michael got back in touch quite quickly, and said he’d be interested in seeing fleshed out pitches for three of my ideas: the cicada story, the black dog, and the broken robots. He said he was particularly interested in First or Fourth Doctor stories, either solo or with Steven, Vicki, Leela or K9. This meant that Black Dog became easy to expand: the idea of K9 being the one to dream of the ghost was just too delicious, and also gave a good reason for the Doctor to take the superstition seriously.
The other two ideas felt better suited to the first than the fourth, but that was all I really knew about either of them. With the cicada story I knew my villain, but the original radio play had a story that wouldn’t translate and so all I had was a character. I tried to merge it with the idea behind one of the other pitches – the Doctor and crew getting stranded without the TARDIS on an abandoned moonbase – but the two fought against each other. Crucially, it needed a clever solution to being stranded that also tied in with the villain and his defeat … I managed to defeat the villain, but struggled to get that to bring back the TARDIS in an interesting way.
And then I came to the robots.
I hadn’t got a story, just a theme that I had assumed I would be interested in. But in the cold light of day, I wasn’t. I couldn’t see a story there, and the theme left me cold: the only thing it seemed to lend itself to was sledgehammer allegory. I cursed myself, but after a few days of getting nowhere I was going to tell Michael I was going to drop it.
But instead I did what I usually do when I have somebody else’s character to write for. Instead of trying to turn my one-line pitch into a story, I looked at the Doctor. I knew where the story was set – a junkyard filled with discarded robots – and I tried to think how he would react when he was trapped in that world. Obviously, he would try to escape … but I then saw how he and the robots would react to each other when he did. And if I set it early in the Doctor’s travels, so he still had a lot to learn about people …
The story opened up in front of me, and suddenly this idea that was just there to make up the numbers was the one I really hoped I would get to write. I sent them off to Michael and hoped he thought the same.
When Michael came back to me, he told me he was only interested in two of the ideas: he passed on the cicada story, explaining that he’d had several strong proposals for the same team. I wasn’t surprised: I hadn’t admitted to myself when I’d sent it in that the idea needed another pass at it, but really it did. But Michael was delighted with the robot story – to my relief – and asked me to go off and write it. We had some back and forth over a title before settling on Flywheel Revolution, but there were only minor changes to the final text: most of these were caused by a change in gender after Peter Purves stepped up as the narrator, which it would have been stupid to be upset about.
Michael was also interested in the Black Dog story, although a little troubled with the idea of K9 having a dream. I began tweaking it, but then discovered that the licensing agreement for K9 didn’t extend to the Short Trips range. Michael suggested Adric as the companion instead, something which I leapt at because I could see a way to combine the idea with the Adric story I’d originally pitched that would make for a stronger story. I did another draft of the outline and sent it back to Michael.
A few days later, he apologetically responded: he’d decided it might be better to keep Matthew Waterhouse narrating the Fifth Doctor stories – it was up to me, of course, but would I consider changing the story again to include Leela so that Louise Jameson could narrate it?
I did think about saying no – I liked the ending of the Adric version of the story, and it depended on him being Alzarian – but not for too long. This was the first work I was doing directly for Michael, and I wanted to be as accommodating as I could in the hope of building a good relationship. I also thought I’d be able to write better for Louise Jameson’s voice than I would Matthew Waterhouse’s: I’d heard her in a lot of non-Who things over the years, to the extent that she had become my default Radio 4 female voice. But the absolute clincher was that I could already see how it would make the story stronger: with Adric as the lead, the theme had become a little woolly; Leela brought a different perspective to it, and in turn made what it was actually about come into focus.
The proposal was signed and Black Dog written soon after.
What Happened Next?
I didn’t attend the recordings of Flywheel Revolution and Black Dog, but I gather that’s fairly standard for Big Finish. In my case, living in Manchester and having children and a day job made it difficult to go to a recording, no matter how interesting that would have been.
Flywheel Revolution was announced, at which point I noticed that the Big Finish website had credited it to my real name rather than my pen name. In getting in touch to amend it, I was told that Flywheel had also been credited in the recording as Paul Dale Smith, and it was too late to have it amended. It wasn’t the first time my work hasn’t been credited to my pen name – I generally tell editors and producers that “I’m Paul in real life, Dale in writing, but I’ll answer to anything”, but it has been pointed out that ambivalence can be confusing. In my attempts to reassure Michael that I wasn’t upset, I made a flippant remark that I think actually had the opposite effect, and came away from the whole exchange feeling that I’d made everybody feel more awkward than they should.
The response to Flywheel and Black Dog was very positive. However, the Companion Chronicle pitch I made came to nothing in the end. The Iris Wildthyme collection I edited for Obverse Books started to take priority. It would be nice to write some more Short Trips, but as Michael hasn’t produced the most recent batch of stories it seems unlikely. Regardless, I’m still very pleased to have ticked off one of the career goals that my younger self set himself and had an audio produced by Big Finish Productions. Now to see if I can tick off the rest.