Michael Scott is one of Ireland’s most successful and prolific writers for both children and adults. With over a hundred titles to his credit, he has written in a variety of genres including fantasy, science fiction and horror, and is considered an authority on mythology and folklore. In 2007, the first of his young adult fantasy series, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, launched straight into the New York Times bestseller’s list, spending 16 weeks in the top ten. All six books in the series have been New York Times bestsellers and the series is now published in 37 countries. Michael kindly agreed to chat about his contribution to Puffin’s eleven-book series of Doctor Who adventures with Paul Simpson…
How were you approached for this project?
Out of the blue, I got a phone call from my agent. He began by saying, “How would you like to write a Doctor Who short story…” He didn’t have to say anything else before I’d said yes. My understanding is that Puffin had put together a list of who they wanted to write and then reached out to the agents. I’d be astonished if anyone refused!
What is fascinating of course is that the publishers have managed to keep the other names secret. I didn’t know fellow Irishman Eoin Colfer was writing the first story, until it appeared and I’ve no idea who is writing the next one. I’ve seen all the other names floating around – Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman and even JK Rowling – but the truth is that outside of Puffin Editorial no-one knows.
I hadn’t a moment’s hesitation when I was asked. I grew up watching the Doctor. While waiting, week-to-week, for the new episode, I would create my own stories for him: in truth, the Doctor is probably one of the reasons I became a writer.
Why did you choose the Second Doctor?
Everyone has their “own” Doctor, and that is usually the one you started watching. I started with Patrick Troughton and then continued on into the Jon Pertwee years. They are my two childhood Doctors.
I would also argue that Patrick Troughton is the most important of all the Doctors. He absolutely breathed new life and energy in the character and series. If he’d got it wrong, then the series might not have continued. The Second Doctor was playful – almost childish – and certainly easier for me to relate to than the first, rather stern, Doctor. All of the later Doctors owe him a huge debt and it’s clear that Matt Smith, the latest, is a huge fan.
It’s supposedly harder to capture this incarnation in print than some of the others; did you find him a challenge to present without Troughton’s physical mannerisms?
It is a challenge. The modern resurgence of interest in the Doctor means that most viewers (and readers) are only familiar with the two most recent regenerations. But I have very clear memories on Patrick Troughton and the BBC have placed a number of video clips online which help capture the nature of the man.
Getting the character was paramount. The first Doctor is very grandfatherly in speech and mannerisms, Jon Pertwee is the professor, cool and authoritative, whereas the Patrick Troughton Doctor was slightly excitable. There is a wonderful clip from The Five Doctors which has Richard Hurndall (as the First Doctor: William Hartnell had died some years previously), Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton arguing over deciphering an ancient stone. It captures their three personalities perfectly.
There are a lot of nice little continuity touches in the story – did you come up with these or were they suggested?
I’m pleased to say they are all mine. I was given complete freedom with the story. However, I knew I wanted it to be true to the canon and I wanted to fix it very firmly in a place and time in the Who-history. There are tiny mentions of events which have come before (the fire extinguisher, for example) and little hints about what will come (the Professor.) I deliberately chose a period between the television episodes where I could slot in a story without interfering with the timeline.
Did you go back and watch or listen to stories from the period, or did you know them pretty well anyway?
It was a great excuse to go back and visit all the stories. And of course, for me, research is almost as much fun (more actually) than the writing. However, I deliberately limited myself to the first two Doctors. So when I came to write the story, I chose a very muted color palette, so it’s almost as if it’s written in black and white – because that was how I first encountered the Doctor. Initially, in the old black and white days, my one abiding memory was hoping that the television signal would remain clear enough to watch the entire episode without dissolving into snow and static. For those of you in a digital satellite age, this was a time when a TV aerial sat on the roof. Growing up in Ireland, we picked up BBC only when the weather was favourable.
I knew from the beginning that the Flamel series was going to be a monster. It was going to be six books, each around 100,000 words, told over six years. And essentially, it is one huge novel. So, before I set out to write a single word of the story, I plotted it in incredible detail, beginning with a single page synopsis of the entire series, then individual synopses of the six books, then chapter by chapter breakdowns of each book. This allowed me to seed ideas and clues into books which would pay off at a later stage, so by the time you get to the huge reveal at the end, it should make sense. I used two specific programs to help me keep track: Mindmanager, which is mindmapping software and TheBrain which is also a combination mind mapping and knowledge management tool. The books were built into those programs.
You’ve written about Dr John Dee in both sci-fi and fantasy milieus previously; were you tempted to bring him into this story?
The Doctor (Dee this time and not Who) is one of my all time favourite characters. I’ve written about him in horror novels (Image & Reflection) and then in science fiction, (The Merchant Prince with [Star Trek: Deep Space Nine actor] Armin Shimerman) and then in fantasy in the Flamel series. He was one of the most extraordinary men of his age, and I’m astonished that he’s not as well known as he should be. I’ve been collecting material for a non-fiction biography of him, but I know I am years away from writing it. Every time I find something about him, it leads to even more questions. I’ve not been entirely fair to him in the Flamel series, I’m afraid. At one stage he, rather than Nicholas Flamel, was the hero of the piece. The only problem is that towards the end of his life, it gets a bit dark and grim and I did not feel that was appropriate for a young adult novel. So Flamel became the hero and he morphed into the villain.
What else are you working on at the moment?
A big new fantasy series, called The Earthlords, which is vaguely – though only vaguely related – to the Flamel series. Each book will be stand alone, so that the fans will not scream at me as they did with the cliff-hanger endings of the previous series.
What do you think the secret of Doctor Who’s longevity is?
Ah, the hard question! Doctor Who survives for lots of reasons. It works as a piece of mythology: it is a classic hero’s journey, the eternal and universal story of a hero in search of his homeland, aided by companions and facing terrible monsters. A version of this story exists in the mythologies of just about every country in the world, so we can all relate to it.
There is another, much more practical reason: right from the very beginning Doctor Who attracted some really great writers. The scripts were intelligent and fun and worked on lots of levels, which meant that it really was proper family viewing. It was experimental – from the music to the sets – and of course, it had the killer gimmick: the Doctor regenerated. Every few years, new Doctor, new show.