Genre Chick Interview: Ian Farrington

Science Fiction Geeks unite–Doctor Who is back, and he’s better than ever. The BBC has published tie-ins to the popular television show, but did you know that there is another publisher of officially licensed Doctor Who literature? This month, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis spends some time with Big Finish editor Ian Farrington to talk about what other worlds the Doctor has yet to conquer.


(Note: the correct British spelling of “favourite” has been left unchanged for authenticity–and because it’s just sexy.)

Alethea Kontis: How did Big Finish get to write official Doctor Who tie-ins?

Ian Farrington: The company has been producing Doctor Who audio dramas since 1999. These are full-cast plays with sounds effects and music, starring original cast members from the TV series, and are produced under license from the BBC. About two or three years into the series, Big Finish pitched to do short-story anthologies as well. The BBC liked our ideas and plans, and the Short Trips range began in 2002. We publish four collections a year, and our latest–Short Trips: The Centenarian–is the 17th so far.

AK: Who’s your favourite Doctor? Your favourite companion?

IF: My favourite has always been Peter Davison. He’s the first I can remember watching as a child, and, as much as I like the others, I’ve always had a soft spot for Davison. His era is my favourite, too, so I like its companions. Turlough was wonderful–an atypical companion in that he was basically a coward and wanted to run away all the time! I think that’s the kind of companion I would be! Having said that, Rose from the new TV series is perfect: a brilliant character and a stunningly good actress.

AK: Do you like writing stories or editing them more?

IF: I love editing. Writing is great fun, and I want to do more, but editing a short-story collection is such a great challenge. I enjoy the whole process of editing–from initial discussions with writers to reading early drafts, from assembling the final versions to seeing proofs. That early stage–which I’m in at the moment for a collection out in September 2007–is such fun. It’s great being able to talk through ideas with writers and decide what you’re going to do. It’s a bit liked a jigsaw: you have to take lots of disparate elements and make them connect, add up, make sense. I’m a big believer in an anthology being an entity in itself, not just a random collection of short stories. The stories should compliment each other; you could have the best stories in the world, but the book won’t be satisfying if the stories don’t run in the right order or use a logical variety of tones.

AK: What do you think of the new Doctors?

IF: Oh, I think they’ve been great. I’ve always been a fan of Christopher Eccleston, so I was thrilled when he became the Doctor, and I loved the way he played the role. He brought a kind of rough edge to it that we maybe hadn’t seen before–but he could be brilliantly silly, which, after all, is what a lot of Doctor Who is about. David Tennant has been wonderful too. His first season was shown in the UK over the summer and was fabulous. He’s more traditional than Eccleston was, but his performance has such verve and energy and a sense of fun.

AK: Are you ever worried you’re going to run out of ideas in a world that’s been around for so long?

IF: It’s certainly a challenge! There have been so many Doctor Who stories over the last 43 years. There’s been over 700 television episodes for a start, but also hundreds of spin-off books and comic strips. Big Finish alone has produced close to a hundred Doctor Who audio dramas and 300 short stories. But that also makes it interesting. It forces you to really think about what you’re doing. You can have a brilliant idea, but then realise that it’s so brilliant it was used on TV in 1967. You then have to rethink, and consider what it is you want to do. How can we make it interesting? How can we do something different? But, having said all that, the wonderful thing about Doctor Who, as many people have said, is that you have such freedom with storytelling. You can have so many settings in time and space, so many types of plot, so many tones.

AK: The Doctor Who episodes are geared toward a young age group–young adult, or younger. Are the Short Trips anthologies also YA appropriate?

IF: Yes, we try to make the books accessible for everyone. We’re a licensed product, so our output is approved by the BBC to make sure they’re happy with what we’re doing. Doctor Who is essentially a children’s franchise. That’s not to say it’s not for grown-ups–I imagine the majority of its fans are adults–but, at its best, it’s never been about things that a young audience can’t see or read or listen to. Our approach is to treat the Short Trips collections as books for everyone, but not to talk down to the readers. The last thing I wanted to read when I was 12 was a book specifically aimed at 12-year-olds!

AK: So what sort of anthologies do you do?

IF: Our collections follow a format in that each book will be around 100,000 words and be made up of, on average, 12 to 16 stories. Each collection has a theme to distinguish it from the others in the series–some are simply thematic concepts, so in the past we’ve done collections where all the stories are set in history or strongly focus on the Doctor’s companions. Some are more plot-heavy, where although the stories can be read in isolation they add up to a bigger story. Our latest anthology is The Centenarian, which tells the life story of a man called Edward Grainger. You could read each story on its own since it’s a self-contained short story, but when it’s read in context, it forms part of a larger story that runs throughout the book.

AK: Who’s the guy on the cover of The Centenarian?

IF: The man on the cover is called Denis Steer. Joseph Lidster, who wrote a couple of stories for the collection and really helped develop the whole book, suggested that a real person could be used to represent Edward Grainger, the centenarian of the title who links the stories in the book together. However, we needed someone who wouldn’t mind us using his likeness, and someone for whom we had lots of photos from throughout his life. Joe suggested his grandfather, and gave us a stack of photos of Denis at all ages. And he ended up on the cover!

AK: How do you choose your writers for the anthologies?

IF: We work really hard to get a good mixture of big-name, well-known writers, writers who are popular with Doctor Who fans, as well as new, even unpublished authors. From the new Doctor Who series, for example, Robert Shearman, Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts, and Gary Russell have contributed to the series. Paul also edited a collection for us–A Christmas Treasury–in 2004. From the original TV series, we’ve used Eric Saward, Marc Platt, Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Terrance Dicks, and Glen McCoy. Then there are people from other literary spheres: Stel Pavlou, Steven A. Roman, Paul Magrs, Dan Abnett, Matthew Sweet, Nev Fountain, Juliet E. McKenna, Lizzie Hopley, James Swallow, and many more! It’s a list of writers we’re really proud of! We also accept unsolicited submissions and actively look for new authors. I’ve edited four collections now, for example, and each one has given someone his or her first professional commission.

AK: What are plans for the future of the range?

IF: We have two more anthologies to come out in 2006. There’s Short Trips: Time Signature, edited by Simon Guerrier, which includes stories from three key writers from the original Doctor Who: Andrew Cartmel, Marc Platt, and Ben Aaronovitch. In December, we’ve got Short Trips: Dalek Empire, which is edited by Nicholas Briggs. As well as being a great writer, producer, and director, Nick is also an actor, and he does the Dalek voices in the new TV series, as well as the Cybermen voices and the Nestene Consciousness voices. We’ll be announcing the rest of 2007’s output on our Web site soon–see