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Interview with Writer Una McCormack

Interview with Una McCormack

by
Jackie Emery and Diane Gies
with additional questions from Jude Constable

Una McCormack is a life-long Blake's 7 fan and former Horizon member. Having started out in fan fiction, her first paid writing was a short story that was printed in Doctor Who Magazine in 1992. She writes Doctor Who and Star Trek DS9 novels, and for Gary Russell's Gallifrey series for Big Finish. She has a PhD in sociology from the University of Surrey and is a lecturer in creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University.

We spoke to Una at the 9 Worlds Convention in August 2013, a few days before the release of Liberator Chronicles Volume 5, which features her story Risk Management. As Una is only the second woman ever to write an episode of Blake's 7, we began by asking her how she felt about that...

Una: Sometimes I just sit there and think – me and Tanith Lee, how amazing is that?! The first time I met Tanith Lee, I was so excited I could hardly speak to her. I love Sarcophagus so much, it was a really pivotal episode for me - such a fan-friendly one, so emotional and intense. And now to realise that I'm the next woman that got to write for this show that I've loved since I was tiny – it's a complete joy!

Horizon: In our interviews with writers, we always ask: 'How did you get into Blake's 7 and how long have you been a fan?'

Una: Oh my goodness! Oh wow, when did I get into Blake's 7? Well, the shaming thing is that I didn't get into it for Seasons 1 and 2. I'm from a family of six and inevitably there was much quarrelling over who got to watch what on television. Blake's 7 clashed with Coronation Street, and I shamefully backed one sibling in her desire to watch that, and it was decided "fair" as you could still see the beginning and end of B7. I've never been allowed to forget this treachery by the other sibling! My dad solved the whole problem in 1980 by getting a VCR. I think we were the earliest family to have one, and it was an unusual splurge by my parsimonious father, but he was basically purchasing peace and quiet!

So I started watching Blake's 7 in 1980, when I was 8 years old. I saw the whole of Season 3, and then Season 4 – we got that twice, didn't we? And I was absolutely besotted. It helped that my sister – the one who wanted to watch B7 - was 10 years older than me and going to conventions at the time. She went to events like the Teal Vandor Convention and passed her newsletters and zines on to me. I've got her zine collection, things like Standard by Seven, two or three of Horizon's really early zines, and a couple of issues of Alternative Seven as well – you know, the A4 ones, stapled together. I was reading these and making up stories in my head.

Horizon: Was it Blake's 7 that got you into writing?

Una: Yes, absolutely. My first fan fiction was a Blake's 7 stick-man cartoon, drawn at the age of about 9! And me and my best friend Jan used to play Blake's 7 in the playground, so those were my first stories. It's been there the whole time. It should have been there from when I was six years old, but it was definitely there from when I was about eight. And then of course, life's first trauma was watching Blake and I don't think I've ever quite recovered from that! You're just coming up for ten years old, it's the week before Christmas and everybody dies... and so you spend your life kind of working through this! Then Paul Darrow's novel came out and I bought that and some Horizon newsletters from the Sheffield Space Centre. I remember that parcel arriving – analogue fandom, you know – before the internet! The parcel arrived, I joined Horizon and got involved and that was how it started.

Horizon: Can you tell us about your career progression from stick figures to professional writing?

Una: Those stick men cartoons! I should see whether I still have them somewhere. I never gave up the habit of making up stories about my favourite childhood characters. In my late teens, I started writing a few very short pieces about the Blake's 7 characters, and I wrote some poetry, which Horizon kindly published. But the big fillip for my writing was when I went online, in the mid-90s, and found a couple of B7 mailing lists devoted to fan fiction. The quality of the fiction that was coming out of those mailing lists was pretty amazing: a friend has referred to it as a kind of ‘New Wave’. So that was a big boost for my ambitions as a writer. It was the first time I worked with a professional editor (putting together a zine in her spare time). I learned a great deal.

I discovered Star Trek: Deep Space 9 in the late 1990s and immediately began writing fan fiction based on it, and posting that online. As luck would have it, the editor of the Star Trek range at Pocket Books was on a discussion group where I also posted. Someone recommended me to him as a writer. It was just around the tenth anniversary of the show, and he invited me to pitch some story ideas. Those became my first novels, The Lotus Flower and Hollow Men.

With this kind of tie-in writing, you need a track record so that you can demonstrate that you can work to incredibly tight deadlines. Once you’re in the door, it’s easier to get work, so after I had some Trek books to my name, it was easier to pitch credibly to Doctor Who. I wrote a couple of Doctor Who novels for BBC Books, working with Justin Richards, and the work for Big Finish followed after that. Getting to write for Big Finish was courtesy of Gary Russell, whom I’ve known for a long time, and who invited me to write for his Doctor Who spin-off series Gallifrey. Again, once you’re through the door, you get invited back.

I have been incredibly lucky. Friends of mine have been trying to break into Star Trek books for years, and the opportunity came knocking on my door. Everything else has followed on from that.

Horizon: When playing Blake's 7 as a child, which character did you choose to be? Who was your favourite character at the time? And then as you were growing up - and now? Youngsters like Vila because he's funny, female teens swoon over Avon/Tarrant, male teens go for Cally, older women still prefer Avon – is any of that true of yourself?

Una: Yes, there’s a lot I recognise in that. Vila made me laugh as a kid, and then as soon as puberty kicked in I angsted dreadfully over Avon, who does, after all, suffer so beautifully! I think that in the playground, though, my best friend Jan and I used to compete to play Avon, as we both wanted to be the hero (of sorts). But I read a long fan story called The Quibell Abduction by Lillian Shepherd, when I was quite young. That story has the single best Cally I’ve ever encountered – a kickass, resourceful guerilla fighter. As a result, I’ve always thought that Cally was incredibly cool, and I’ve always loved writing her. I also really enjoy exploring the lives and times of other female characters; I’ve written some short stories about Anna Grant and Arlen, for example.

Horizon: Although Jenna is not a guerilla fighter, she is undoubtedly resourceful and has a kickass streak. What do you think are the differences between Jenna and Cally's characters, or do you see them as fundamentally similar? In other words, why play Cally (or even Avon) when you could play Jenna?

Una: Good question. A couple of reasons, I think. Firstly, Cally has psychic powers, and that's obviously cool. Secondly, as I said, I didn't watch the first couple of seasons of B7 when they were transmitted, so I never saw Jenna in action until the videos started to come out - remember those four edited tapes? So Cally was "my" kickass heroine. 

Horizon: Having written for Big Finish's Doctor Who spin-off series, Gallifrey, how then did you get to write Blake's 7 for them?

Una: They asked me. It was very, very nice to be approached. Justin Richards has been involved in the new range of Liberator Chronicles. He knew that I adored Blake's 7, and it was via him that producer David Richardson invited me to pitch to write. So I got an email from David saying that Justin had suggested me for this series, and would I like to do it? Oh, I tried to be very cool at first... but obviously it was an absolute dream come true!

Horizon: Risk Management is a Blake/Jenna story. Was that your choice, or were you specifically asked to write for those two characters?

Una: It was a case of "Please write for Blake and Jenna". I was told that those were the actors, the voices they'd got available, so please could I do this story for them. Then I was given a rough idea of who was going to be the primary voice, so I knew that it had to be 60-70% Blake speaking, with Jenna having fewer lines. It's just to do with the way they block out studio time, how long the actors are in and how much time they have available. I also knew it needed to be set during Season 2. Obviously Season 1 and Season 2 are tonally quite different, so you want them to feel a little bit different. I was also asked for something a little bit comic; they wanted a lighter story as they had quite a few dark ones. I needed to find the comedy in Blakes 7! So the first thing I did was rewatch the Robert Holmes episodes. They are fun and they do find the humour in B7.

Horizon: What principle character traits informed your writing of Blake and Jenna? As Risk Management takes place after Trial, what do you think was going on in the background of the respective characters - ie feelings of guilt, concern, forgiveness, betrayal etc?

Una: Blake is passionate and single-minded. Once he’s set on something, he won’t let go. Part of the fun of writing Risk Management was putting him in a situation where he couldn’t resort to threats and blowing things up. He’s in a legalistic battle, and he has to try to outwit people that way (though the neutron blasters help!). Jenna is street-wise, but she does have a tendency to defer to Blake. It’s important when writing Jenna to remember that she’s as much of a crook as Avon and Vila. Blake has dazzled her a little with his charisma, but at the end of the day, she’s another convicted criminal – and not for her politics. She strikes me as having a sharp eye for people. She’d be the one to spot a policeman from a mile off.

Because I was asked to write something light, I didn’t get into the angst that must have followed after the death of Gan. I wanted something that felt a lot more like something from further along in the season, like Gambit. Something that’s helping them put all that happened in Pressure Point and Trial behind them, to some extent.

Horizon: Would you have liked to write a dark story for Blake, and if so, where might you start? How did you feel about being asked to write a light story?

Una: I’d done a very dark story already, which hasn't been released yet, so I’d already had a chance to let rip on that aspect of Blake's 7. I was really pleased to be asked to write a lighter story – it’s not what immediately comes to mind when you think of B7, and so I had to find a way of making it feel like the show without it being too corny. I hope I managed to pull it off.

Blake definitely has the capacity to be dark. Something that later becomes apparent in his bounty hunter days, perhaps? He’s most interesting when he’s juggling his ideals and his sometimes quite ruthless pragmatism.

Horizon: How did you feel about writing for Jenna as secondary character to Blake? Would you like to write a story that featured her - or one of the others - as main narrator?

Una: I would love to write a story which featured one of the female characters as the lead. Anna Grant would be ideal – I love writing about spies anyway, and people who live double lives. I think Soolin is a great character too. Soolin and Avon make a very entertaining double-act, second only to Avon and Vila for entertainment value. I’m very interested in Federation lackeys; people like Arlen must have a great story to tell, if rather bleak.

Horizon: Terry Nation admitted that he found it hard to write for the women in Blake's 7 and Robert Holmes tended towards 'male-buddy' stories. Apart from Tanith Lee (and yourself!) all the B7 writers have been men. How do you think that has affected the development of the female characters? Are Big Finish now redressing the balance by giving the girls more action?

Una: You have to give kudos to the female actors on Blake's 7 who made really quite limited parts work for them. And obviously Servalan is an incredible creation by Jacqueline Pearce, absolutely iconic. But, yes, you often feel that the writers on the show struggled to imagine women as people. Let’s not even mention episodes like Power and Moloch! (Although I informally ran all the B7 episodes through the Bechdel Test recently, and I think that Ben Steed manages to pass both times.) I think that all this was a product of those times, though. The writers of the Big Finish plays are doing a grand job.

Horizon: Remembering the Horizon zines, submissions from male and female writers were very different. The girls wrote angst and emotion, while the blokes were all about space ships and battles. When we spoke to David Richardson, we asked whether he found a difference between a script by a woman writer as opposed to all the blokes' stories. But he told us that he didn't find a difference in that respect between your stories and the blokes'. He said that yours had action, while a lot of the emotional stuff has come from Simon Guerrier!

Una: That's very interesting. Well, I was always into spaceships, lasers and emotions, so what I liked about Blake's 7 was the whole package. There's angst, but there's also things exploding! If I was just about the angst and emotions, maybe I'd be more of a soap viewer. But I want a space ship AND a robot AND an explosion as well as people emoting. I like writing action, I've always enjoyed that. I'm conscious that B7 is an action-adventure series, so I guess when you're stuck for plot you have something blow up and make people run around. I'm glad I'm defying category!

Horizon: What can you tell us about the other story you've written for Big Finish?

Una: It was actually my first one; I wrote it before Risk Management. It's called Ministry of Peace and it's an Avon and Servalan story. It's a much darker story, it's my kind of uber-B7 story. I assume it's recorded, because Jacqueline's gone back to Africa.

Horizon: And finally, we always end our interviews with a silly question: Which B7 character would you take to a bar, and why?

Una: Oh, Vila, obviously. It would be huge fun. You'd end up out of pocket – you'd have paid for all the drinks and he'll have nicked your wallet, but you'll have been to the best bars and had an absolute hoot!

Horizon: So, from childhood fan to professional Blake's 7 scriptwriter. We're really pleased for you!

Una: It's fantastic! Gareth Thomas and Sally Knyvette, Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce are saying my lines. It's a dream come true - I couldn't be happier!

Horizon: Thank you ever so much for talking to us.

Una: My pleasure!

***

You can follow Una on Twitter @unamccormack

Liberator Chronicles Volume 5 is available from Big Finish on CD and digital download.

Ministry of Peace is one of the stories on Liberator Chronicles Volume 10, which is scheduled for release in November 2014 and available now to pre-order.

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