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Interview with Trevor Baxendale

Interview with Trevor Baxendale

by
Jackie Emery

Trevor Baxendale has written Doctor Who and Torchwood novels for BBC Books, including the award-winning Prisoner of the Daleks. His novel Fear of the Dark was reprinted in 2013 as part of Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary celebrations. He has written scripts for Big Finish's Doctor Who, Robin Hood and Highlander ranges, and most recently the full cast audio drama Blake’s 7: Scimitar. His Blake's 7 novel, Criminal Intent, was published in November 2014.  


It all started with a Horizon club badge. Trevor Baxendale asked if he could have one, and I said yes, but only if Horizon could have an interview in exchange. Trevor agreed, and negotiations thus complete, we began:

Horizon: When did you first watch Blakes 7 – were you a child, teen or adult?

Trevor: Oh let's see, I was 11 when it started in January 1978. I was there from Episode 1, right when it started, and I watched it all the way through to its wonderful and bitter end. And I really enjoyed that ending! It was a shock, for sure, but the series had run its course by that time, and it finished exactly as it should: unpredictable, brutal, and unique.

I loved Blakes 7, because it had an edgy, unpredictable quality that you just didn't get with Star Trek or Doctor Who. It had none of the pretensions of Trek or the whimsicality of Who. Star Wars was visually incredible; I was a big fan of that and well aware of the difference in FX and budget and so on, but Blake's 7 had a cold, brutal quality all of its own.

Horizon: Do you have a favourite season?

Trevor: It's difficult to pick one, but I do have a soft spot for Season D. I doubt I could explain why; I just like the Scorpio, I like the crew and I like the anarchic feel. Avon and the others are in a state of chaos, just like the Federation. There's a sense that everything is coming undone, falling apart and that all bets are off for both sides.

Horizon: Who are your favourite characters?

Trevor: Avon, Travis and Soolin.

Avon very quickly establishes himself as the character to watch, right from when he first appears. Paul Darrow then takes that to the next level - creating a unique persona, and in some way moulding the series around him - or giving the writers something to mould the series around, as he comes to the fore when Blake leaves. In Avon's final episodes, Paul Darrow gives a wonderfully layered performance. There is so much going on there, culminating in that amazing last scene.

Travis is a wonderful villain - every inch the blackhearted swine he should be, and yet... both Stephen Greif and Brian Croucher invest him with a kind of pathos; they play him, quite rightly, as if he's the hero of the story. Because Travis sees himself as exactly that - the fiercely committed Federation warrior who is tasked with dealing with a known terrorist and his insurgent followers. Travis, in the first series, believes absolutely in the Federation and its ideals and processes. The second version of Travis is quite different, but he has a great episode in Trial where, once again, he is very much the hero figure. The second Travis's dissolution into a vengeful renegade is a fascinating subplot. I'd like to write a book that explains and deals with the very noticeable difference between the two versions of Travis. It's not enough that he's just replaced by another actor, a great deal of his personality changes as well. There has to be a reason for that - and I think I know what it could be...

Soolin I like as a concept character, and the way that Glynis Barber made her feel like a real person despite very scant storylines. I wish Soolin had been given more to do - I'd love to write a Season D novel or audio play featuring her. She's the archetypical Blake's 7 character and deserves far more than she got.

Horizon: Do you have a favourite episode?

Trevor: It's difficult to single out particular episodes. The Way Back is a powerhouse script and seems to start something that turns out quite wonderfully different to what you'd expect. Rumours of Death is so bursting with confidence in the writing and acting and production, it's lovely to watch. And Blake is incredible for the same reasons, but also because of that astonishing final scene.

Horizon: Which of the many grey areas of B7 - the moral ambiguity and the fact that there are no clear cut good and bad guys - did you most enjoy exploring in your writing?

Trevor: I don't think it's quite right to say that there are no clear cut good and bad guys. Servalan is unremittingly wicked. I think we all know where our sympathies rightly lie - the crew of the Liberator (and the Scorpio) are our heroes. But they are all fascinating characters, not just ciphers, and Travis in particular is quite complex, and becomes ever more complex. There's so much background to the Federation that is only ever hinted at in the series, it's nice to dig a little deeper. I touched on this in Criminal Intent, and I found writing for Travis and the mutoids was very enjoyable. I could write a whole book just from his point of view!

Horizon: How and why did you decide to be a writer?

Trevor: I don't think I ever decided to be a writer. It just happened. I always enjoyed reading as a child and it seemed to me there was no reason why I couldn't write my own. It felt like the natural thing to do. I'd learned to read and write after all!

I drew a lot as well. Growing up, I saw myself as an artist and illustrator, and assumed I would work in that kind of field. My intention was to become a comic artist, and like all would-be comic artists growing up, I drew my own comics, and that meant writing them too, thinking up the characters and stories and how to tell them. Fantastic fun!

My early influences were pulp adventure novels: loads of stuff by Edgar Rice Burroughs (I devoured the entire Tarzan series at a young age), Robert E Howard's Conan, the SF novels of Andre Norton, all the Doctor Who Target books of course, and lots and lots of comics. I was a voracious consumer of British comics like Warlord and Battle, then 2000AD and Marvel in my teens. When I was a little older, I discovered Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, and they were big influences too.

There was loads of fantastic fantasy TV growing up in the 1970s - Doctor Who, Blake's 7, The Tomorrow People... I loved The Six Million Dollar Man too, and Space 1999 and of course Star Trek. The New Avengers and The Professionals were very influential. I lived and breathed all this stuff.

As for films – well, Star Wars landed in 1977 when I was 11 and changed everything! There can't be many kids then who weren't influenced by Star Wars. But that same year I saw The Spy Who Loved Me, and so began an enduring love of James Bond films as well. I discovered the books later in my teens and they blew my mind in a completely different way. They led directly into an enthusiasm for adventure stories that weren't just SF. I started reading Jack Higgins, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carre. The first really big, influentual movies in my mid-teens though were Superman 2, The Empire Strikes Back and Flash Gordon - and then Arnold Schwarzenegger did Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator and everything changed again.

Running alongside all this was a deep love for Doctor Who. It never really occurred to me that I could write Doctor Who. It was something I was a huge fan of, but my writing-for-pleasure stuff was other things.

The first things I wrote were comedy SF novellas for me and my friends at school - handwritten and full of in-jokes. But mainly comics, for my own entertainment. During one summer holiday, I did start an epic Fifth Doctor comic strip featuring the Daleks, which was pretty awful. Then I learned to type and bashed out short stories on a typewriter: Tarzan, Conan and eventually Doctor Who. I had a few bits published in a local Doctor Who fanzine.

I painted the cover for the Doctor Who fanzine Frame to celebrate the programme's 25th anniversary, which was well received - and even gets a mention in the BBC's The Vault book to celebrate the 50th anniversary!

Then after I left art college, it all went quiet. In the end, I probably wasn't a good enough artist - or rather, there were way too many people better at it than me, to make a living. I ended up having to find 'proper' work in order to earn money and get married and have a house etc. It's very easy for creative people to fall into that kind of life - a regular salary, security, responsibilities. Suddenly the creative stuff gets subsumed, repressed, consigned to a life never lived. I tried out for 2000AD as an artist but they didn't want me - the editor told me to go away and learn to draw anatomy properly! He was probably right, although it hurt at the time.

When Virgin books got the license to publish original Doctor Who novels, I submitted some story ideas for their New Adventures series. Although I got some encouraging responses, those novels never really captured my interest because they seemed too far removed form the TV series I loved. I don't think I ever really 'got' those books - they didn't seem much like Doctor Who to me. I preferred the Missing Adventures, and I kicked a few ideas around for that series, but by this time Virgin had an established core of great writers and I felt I'd missed the boat.

Then, when the Paul McGann TV movie came along in 1996 and BBC Books got the licence to publish original Doctor Who fiction on the back of it, I felt it was a good time to try again. I loved McGann's Doctor and the movie completely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the series. Maybe that showed in my first pitch, because I got some great feedback from Steve Cole, who was the editor of the new BBC Books range at the time. He saw something in my first pitch and asked me to try again. My first pitch for The Janus Conjunction featured the Sontarans, and Steve asked me to rewrite it with an original monster instead. Those monsters didn't cut the mustard either, so I rewrote it as a more human -v- human conflict and that's what got commissioned and published. My first paid work - and all written on an electric typewriter!

Horizon: How did you become a writer for Big Finish?

Trevor: I think I probably begged Gary Russell very early on. It's difficult to understand now the impact Big Finish's Doctor Who audio plays had when they first started. Original, genuine Doctor Who when I thought the series was buried forever! It was like a dream, it really was. I can't remember exactly how it came about, but I do know that being asked by Gary to write one was massive for me. I wrote The Dark Flame for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor and I was pretty happy with it as my first ever script - but it didn't really go down all that well. It certainly had problems; maybe it was because it was an audio version of Virgin's New Adventures set up, and featured Bernice Summerfield and a militarised future Ace as companions. They were two characters I never really got. I was therefore pretty astonished when Gary asked me to write a play for Bernice's own solo series as my next commission. Astonished, but very happy! I wrote The Draconian Rage - and that turned out to be one of my best ever scripts, I think.

Horizon: When you were commissioned to write Blakes 7 for Big Finish, did you rewatch the entire series or just those episodes that were relevant to what you were writing? And was it a pleasure or a chore?

Trevor: Funnily enough, I'd rewatched all fifty-two episodes on DVD the year before. I had them all on VHS from the 1990s, but I no longer had a VHS player, so I borrowed the DVDs from my friend, Peter Stam - I've got to mention him because he's my oldest mate and a great supporter. He was so happy when I got to write Scimitar and it's thanks to him that the series was so fresh in my mind!

Getting the opportunity to write for Blake's 7 was huge for me. When Big Finish got the rights and produced the first audios and books, I was very envious of the writers. I doubted that I would ever be asked to write for the Blake's 7 range, and it was very frustrating. But I submitted an idea for a novella in the hope that I might get a chance, and that led to me being picked up for the Criminal Intent novel, which was fantastic. I ended up writing the Scimitar script at the same time as writing the novel, because I'd had a very long lead-in time on the book. I hadn't been commissioned to write anything in a long while and then typically two came along at once! I felt rusty writing an audio script, and I would have done things slightly differently now if I did it again. It was also quite a challenge, writing for a large regular cast, to make sure everyone was fairly represented and to kick the new series off with a bang.

Horizon: How do you approach writing an audio script as opposed to a novel?

Trevor: When writing an audio script you only have the dialogue and an occasional sound effect to tell the story, and that is an incredibly difficult skill to master. I'd like a lot more practice - I want to get better at it! Also, an audio play is much more of a collaborative effort. It starts with the script, but the director and the cast and the sound designer all have a huge affect on the finished product. With a novel, the writer has complete control over everything - within editorial requirements, obviously. But it takes a lot longer to write!

When you're writing for a large regular cast on audio, you have to be sympathetic to the actors playing the parts. They want good lines and lots of involvement and interaction. So do the guest artists. Some of the audios deliberately concentrate on one or two of the regular cast, to give them meatier stories and plenty to do, but in Scimitar I had full use of the full cast and I didn't want to let anyone down. At the same time, you have a story to tell in a short space of time, and you can't just share lines around equally. It's a matter of balance. Having the full cast also meant that I could only have two guest characters (Drince and Karlov), and of course you want to give the lion's share of stuff to the regulars because they're what it's all about. Poor Drince and Karlov were quite reduced, but I was very impressed with how much life Daniel Brennan and Buffy Davis gave them!

In a novel you have a lot more time. You want to give all the characters something positive to do, to be a part of the story, but it doesn't have to rely on what they say - it can be more about what they're thinking. You can write a scene with the regulars on the flight deck of the Liberator and one or two of them may not contribute to the conversation but still be very present. On audio you have to indicate who is there and what they think using dialogue alone, and you have to give someone a line early in a scene to flag up the fact that they are present, so that when they come in at the end with a gag or a pithy comment it's not a complete surprise to the listener that the character's actually there.

Horizon: When you were simultaneously working in two different mediums, on two different seasons of Blakes 7, how did you keep the characters straight in your head? Especially Avon, who undergoes quite a bit of character development between Season A (Criminal Intent) and Season C (Scimitar)?

Trevor: 'Simultaneously' in this case meant that I was working on the pitch for Scimitar in January 2014 while still finishing the first draft of Criminal Intent, and then writing the script for the audio play immediately after completing the novel. There are always rewrites to be done - editorial suggestions and rethinks of certain situations or characters - and I was sort of switching back and forth between the two for a while.

I don't think it took a conscious effort to keep the characters straight. They're very clear in my head, plus the two very different mediums meant it was easier to make the distinction where necessary. A lot of the development in Avon's character is due to the absence of Blake after Season B. In some ways, Avon's role is almost defined by the presence of Blake. He's the voice of argument in Seasons A and B, trying to counteract Blake's ideological impulses with a more logical caution and a healthy dose of cynicism. When Blake is gone, Avon assumes command and that puts an entirely different responsibility on him as the driver of the story. Might it have been trickier working on two audio plays from different eras at the same time? I don't know. I don't think so... I've done a lot of franchise fiction, and fitting things into the existing natural continuity is part of the job.

Horizon: Looking back on the finished results, would you have done anything differently?

Trevor: I've have done it better! But I say that after everything I've written. When it's complete and finished, I always look back and think, 'I wish I'd done this or that differently.' I can always see room for improvement. I would have liked to make Scimitar more character-driven, rather than plot-driven, but then that was probably the result of having a very large regular cast and a specific brief to kick off the main story arc for the season. In retrospect, I might have tried to get Avon, Grant and Cally on to the Scimitar sooner, or tried to develop the characters and story of Drince and Karlov a little more.

Horizon: Overall, what has given you the most satisfaction so far? And what has been your biggest challenge?

Trevor: For Big Finish, I think my best scripts were for Highlander (The Lesson) and Robin Hood (Friendly Fire). It was a big thrill for me, writing an audio book to be read and acted by Adrian Paul, because I'd really enjoyed the Highlander TV series he did and the commission came as such a surprise! It was also a great honour to write the first story to kick the series off. But I wrote a good story and it was brilliantly produced by Cavan Scott - he must really like my stuff!

The Robin Hood script I did for him is probably my favourite. I'm a big fan of Robin Hood, in any version you care to think of - Fairbanks, Praed, Connery, Costner, even the Disney cartoon. Especially the Disney cartoon! I just love the story, the legend, the endless way it can be retold and re-imagined for every new generation. The basics all remain the same, but there are so many versions, styles, periods. It's a bit like Doctor Who in that respect! I wanted to get that fantastic legacy across in my story; the fact that the legend Robin creates will last forever. David Harewood's speech to Robin, talking to him as Tuck about exactly that subject, still gives me goosebumps - and I wrote it!

I think my biggest challenge was the full cast script I did for Paul McGann's Doctor, Something Inside. I was very aware that a) The Dark Flame hadn't exactly been a critical success, and b) this could be my last chance. Plus it was Paul McGann who - at the time of this commission - was the current Doctor. It was a big coup for Big Finish to get Paul and I knew he was wary of getting any duff scripts. The pressure was on for me, and I really sweated writing that one. I pulled out all the stops; I even threw in a football reference for Paul. I thought it was a tight script, full of mystery and peril and humour and a bit of horror. I was pleased with it - until I watched the first episode of Russell T Davies' new Doctor Who TV series, which aired not long before Something Inside came out. Then I realised how far off the mark I was! Sadly, that was the last Doctor Who commission I ever got from Big Finish.

The full cast Blake's 7: Scimitar was also quite a challenge, because it was my first script in ages and I really wanted it to be good enough for me to be asked back again!

Horizon: What projects are you currently working on?

Trevor: A Doctor Who novel for BBC Books starring the Twelfth Doctor and Clara, as played by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. It's called Deep Time and it's due out in September.

Horizon: What future ambitions do you have?

Trevor: I'd love to write a lot more scripts, I think it's a skill that benefits massively from regular practice. I'd love to write more Blake's 7; I've got the bit between my teeth now. I have no particular themes in mind - I'd like to write a book or a play set in Season D of course, but there are plenty more adventures to be had throughout the whole history of the series. I've got a ton of ideas - but that's the easy part! Getting the commission and writing it is the hard part. As for other things... well let's just say if the people behind the Star Wars books were to ask, I'd be more than happy to write one! I also have a couple of things I'd like to write that are not franchise-based, that are my own original stories. I'd love to do those. I really should do them...

Horizon: And finally - the silly question we ask all our interviewees: if you could take any Blake's 7 character (not the actor) to a bar, who would it be, and why?

Trevor: Ha, ha! I have no idea. None of them, really - I can't think of any that would be great company in a bar. Soolin would be great to walk in with, but she'd probably get bored very quickly and shoot me just for target practice!

Trevor Baxendale, thank you very much for talking to Horizon. Your badge is in the post!

***

Criminal Intent and Scimitar are currently available from Big Finish at special rates.
Trevor Baxendale's new novel Doctor Who: Deep Time will be published by BBC Books on 10th September 2015. 

Photograph of Horizon badge courtesy of Cavan Scott
Photograph of Scimitar cast courtesy of Big Finish
Cover art for Scimitar by Grant Kempster
Cover art for Criminal Intent by Anthony Lamb

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