Paul Cornell on Writing New DOCTOR WHO in a Classic Era

One of the best things about spinoff material is it affords writers the opportunity to return to or explore aspects of a story that its source material simply can’t tackle for one reason or another. For Doctor Who, it’s pretty difficult to spend any real time with the older Doctors, because their corresponding actors either look much older or aren’t alive anymore. But in the novels, comics, and other ephemera, those Doctors can be exactly the way they used to be. “The way it USED to be” is the key for writer Paul Cornell who begins his run on Titan‘s Third Doctor comics this August. We spoke to Cornell—writer of Doctor Who TV stories “Father’s Day” and “Human Nature/Family of Blood,” as well as dozens of books and comics—over the magic of Skype to discuss what his version of the Third Doctor will look like. Hint: It will be very 1970s.

The Titan run of Doctor Who has seen all modern Doctors, as well as the Fourth Doctor, at least get a miniseries, with Cornell himself writing the “Four Doctors” arc. He says his working on a Third Doctor book very much comes from a place of inspiration. “I never do Doctor Who in whatever media these days when an idea pops into my head,” he explained. “I thought, ‘That’s an idea I can’t do in anything else. It’s a Doctor Who idea. What Doctor would it work best with? It would work best with the Third Doctor. Thank goodness I have somewhere I can tell that.’”

Cornell didn’t want to spoil the central idea of the arc, which he wants to remain a surprise, but he did tell us when in the Third Doctor’s era the arc will take place. “It’s after ‘The Three Doctors,’ while Jo Grant is still with the Doctor.” This puts it right smack in season 10, which is the final season for the Third Doctor’s longest companion, Jo Grant, as played in the series by Katy Manning. Cornell explained that Jo’s growth as a character is a main reason to set his story where he does.

“Something I really want to do,” Cornell continued, “is to live up to these characters and do them in the full, as they were on television. I think that’s the basic mission. To go a little bit further, with Jo—as recent critical approaches have revealed—Jo’s doing a very ’70’s thing: actually being very competent, and being very competent from the outset, and trying really hard to hide it so she doesn’t threaten the men around her. I’ll be using that. I’ll be using it in the same way the program does. Maybe I’m going a little bit more so, where the audience will be cued for it.”

In terms of people who’ve written about the series of Doctor Who critically, as well as professionally for the program itself during the Russell T. Davies years, Cornell is one of the most well respected. He has co-written, among many other things, The Discontinuity Guide, the 1995 guidebook to the classic series. Reading these works, one might be surprised to hear that Cornell has chosen to write during the Third Doctor’s time. “A couple people have said, ‘Aren’t you the great Pertwee critic?’ It’s true, I am,” he said. “From way back, from the 1990s, when it was very fashionable to do so. I was a great critic of the Third Doctor, which I think at the time was incredibly necessary. What was a classic and what was a turkey, and these were actually words that were themselves set in stone.” He equates this critical movement to smashing down the received wisdom about the Third Doctor stories, but admits, “as always with these movements, we smashed a few nice statutes along the way.”

What we as readers and fans can expect from these Third Doctor stories, Cornell promises, is a faithful recreation of everything about the early-’70s, Pertwee era, as best as can be replicated in comic book form in 2016. “I’m bringing in the nice stuff. I’m not sweetening the arrogance or the rudeness, but I’m contextualizing it, so again, you get it. It’s one of the things I want to do.” He also opined that to change the past to fit the writer’s perception, or to fit the style of the time, is not to do it justice. “Normally, for any era of Doctor Who in which I write spin-off media,” Cornell said, “I think the circumstances of production really dictate the shape of that thing. For example, I always think if you’re doing a Troughton comic strip, and you’ve got amazing vistas of many spaceships and gloriously drawn aliens, you’re really letting the side down. You should be in a very small base with a very small budget, no matter what medium you’re in. That informs the shape of the storytelling. It doesn’t feel like Troughton unless you deliberately put on budgetary restrictions which you do not have.”

He continued, “For the Pertwee era, there’s a strange and interesting exception to that, which is they really want to suggest tanks and platoons of army and airstrikes, and things like that. I thought, ‘Okay, let’s go just a little beyond the fringe of the television and show some of that, because we now can.’ Because the show itself would go, ‘Yes, yes. That was what we were trying for, go for that.’” He also explained that he’d leave notes to this effect to his artist on the series, the great Christopher Jones. “My scripts are still full of instructions to Chris about making the visuals look like they could be made by BBC designers, and things like that.”

So, in a way, Paul Cornell is working through his feelings toward the Pertwee era—good and ill—in this miniseries. “I think that’s what any writer, with his salt or her salt, will do when thrown into doing a previous Doctor. You work out what you like and what you don’t, and you pick and choose elements, and you work on things.” He went on to reiterate that maintaining the style of the era in question is the main task. “Of all the reactionary critique of the New and Missing Adventures [spin-off novels from the ’80s], the thing that really chimed with me, and the thing I actually agreed with, was it should feel like the era it comes from. Otherwise, you’re just abandoning the basic limitations which are meant to be good little hurdles for you to leap over, that you should leap over in interesting ways, like dressage.”

You heard it here first, folks; writing with limitations is the dressage of creativity.

You can read the five-issue Third Doctor miniseries from Titan Comics, written by Paul Cornell and illustrated by Christopher Jones, beginning in August.

Featured Image: Paul McCaffrey/Titan Comics

Images: Christopher Jones/Titan Comics/BBC

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!

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