WRITER: CHRIS BOUCHER
Chris Boucher has written, and script edited, many television shows including Bergerac, Juliet Bravo and Shoestring. He created the character of Leela in Doctor Who and has written four novels featuring her and the Fourth Doctor. He acted as script editor on all four seasons of Blake’s 7.
This interview was conducted by Mark Oliver and was first published in Issue 5 of Scorpio Attack, 2008.
SA: Being a war baby, when you were growing up the war was very fresh in the minds of those around you. Do you think the closeness of the war and the impact of the Third Reich has had lasting influences on your writing?
CB: I suppose it's possible but somehow I doubt it. Even at my most paranoid I can't believe they had it in for me personally. I would imagine that post-war austerity had more impact. I can actually remember rationing and a time when you learned the pleasures of deferred gratification. (I want it and I want it now? - well get over it there isn't any). I was horrified to realise recently that I was born before the NHS was started. We've got the war to thank for it and like everyone else I certainly benefitted. But I digress: if you’re asking about militarism and nationalism and patriotism and all the other isms that flesh is heir to I am sure they affected me but how I have no idea. I hate them all of course but show me someone who hates something and I will show you someone who is afraid of whatever it is and quite probably attracted to it as well. Take a good look at the racists, the religious zealots, the gay-bashers - did you ever see such fear and confusion...
SA: At what point growing up did your family obtain a television? What was it like, as a child or young adult at the time, to suddenly have access to this new medium?
CB: I loved television from the first moment I saw it. It had a 12 inch black-and-white screen and mostly crappy dull programmes. Now my set has a 54 inch colour screen and mostly crappy dull programmes. And I still love it. I think I was ten when the family clubbed together to buy my gran and granddad the first set so we could all sit round and watch the coronation. And what a really boring broadcast that was.
I also loved films (we didn't call them movies - back in the day it was called going to the pictures). I still love films though I have come to hate cinemas. Noisy, smelly and uncomfortable, and that's just the audience.
SA: Has living through the birth of television affected how you view radio as opposed to its younger counterpart?
CB: No. I don't remember there ever having not been radio (called the wireless by the way). I have listened to it all my life. On its day it is superior to all other forms. And if you don't believe me, consider The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It went from radio to television to film - and downhill all the way...
SA: Can you tell us a little bit about the first piece of writing you sold?
CB: It was what I later discovered is called a three-line quickie: basically a three speech comedy sketch. I sold it to a Saturday night television magazine programme called Braden's Week. Bernard Braden was a major star back then. He phoned personally. I was out, so was my wife. My mum answered the phone - she was thrilled. The producer of the show was John Lloyd, a charming Welshman, died suddenly and sadly young. The quickie was performed by Chris Munds and Hilary Pritchard. We watched it that Saturday night. I was thrilled. That's more information than you wanted isn't it?
SA: Each of your three Doctor Who stories, The Face of Evil, Robots of Death and Image of the Fendahl has fairly overt references to God and other deities, with Xoanon, Taren Capel and the Fendahl respectively. This influence contrasts sharply with your, more secular, scripts for Blake’s 7. Why the change and did this reflect any evolution of your own beliefs?
CB: I was an instinctive atheist before the full logic of evolution struck me, and that happened in my late twenties. Until then, though godless, I was still wedded to the idea that our species was on some inevitable progression onwards and upwards to some higher destiny. And then I realised that our development was logical but it wasn't inevitable; that it was a progression but it wasn't upwards, and that there was no higher destiny as such.
SA: Would you consider yourself a fan of science fiction in general and the work of the late Frank Herbert in particular?
CB: Frank Herbert, Philip Dick, Harry Harrison, Walter Miller Jnr., Brian Aldiss, Robert Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Pohl - the list is long and full of wondrous cleverness. Back when I started reading the stuff, which was back when I started reading, short stories were the dominant form. Amazing, Astounding, New Worlds were not just the names of magazines, they were accurate descriptions of what was inside them.
SA: Destination: Void (Herbert, 1965) which introduced the concept of generational starships and the effect that extended periods of spaceflight has on a crew and their decedents would seem to be a direct influence on The Face of Evil. Was this the case, and, if so what was it about this novel that inspired you to adapt some of the concepts for Doctor Who?
CB: I've given up trying to remember where I got ideas from. You know what they say: one source is plagiarism, two and it's research. Having said that though I think Harry Harrison's Captive Universe was probably in there somewhere too. Most of us never have an original idea of any kind about anything (despite secretly believing we are unique). In fact there can be no such thing as a completely original idea - or rather it would be unrecognisable as an idea since, by definition, it would relate to nothing else that was known... So anyway providing you don't simply copy an idea, what matters is what you do with it, rather than where you got it from. Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
SA: Robots of Death shares similar themes (such as desert planet, aristocratic/noble houses and a valuable spice/mineral) with Herbert’s Dune (1965) a novel widely regarded as perhaps the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Like its counterpart, Robots is considered one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time. Why do you think this is?
CB: I stole from a good source obviously. Dune is a great novel which has been very badly adapted for film and TV. I could have done it so much better. (Oh yes I could and since no-one's ever going to pay me to try, I'll say it again: I would have made a much better job of it!) As to Robots of Death: it had a good writer, a good script editor, a good director, a good producer, it had Tom Baker and Louise Jamieson - what's not to like? It was the first onto DVD too - there's lucky. And just to show you how well I understand such things - I told the guys who were producing the disc that it was probably a bit pointless because DVD's would always be an expensive niche market.
SA: Blake’s 7 whose final episode was first transmitted over 25 years ago is, to date, the last mainstream, primetime, ongoing political orientated British science fiction series. Its bleak depiction of the future, reinforced by the final episode, could make for uncomfortable viewing. Why, in your view, has no such other mainstream series been produced in the intervening years?
CB: I blame cheap foreign imports. Where's the quota system when you need it? Actually I don't know the answer to your question. It could be something to do with the personalities of the channel controllers and the commissioning editors. It could be that science fiction does not draw people who network well. Personally I have never been able to network at all. Indeed I find it difficult to talk to anyone I'm not actually related to. Terry was good at networking I think.
SA: Early drafts of some scripts are widely available such as the initial draft of The Way Back then entitled, “Cygnus Alpha.” The changes from initial script to screen clearly seem intended to produce a more cost effective series such as the reduction in the principal cast. How agreeable was Terry to these changes and was there any difficulty within the BBC of having Blake convicted (wrongly) of kidnap and child molestation?
CB: Terry was a very agreeable man, seriously charming and a talented self-promoter (with a very tough agent). Like all good freelancers he had to have an eye to the money. And the money comes from screen time. Extended screen time comes from being viable and watchable and, in my view, listenable (if the dialogue stinks so does the show).
David Maloney was a terrific producer and I was a good script editor. Terry was lucky to have us. As it goes I think we may well have hurt his feelings quite badly and I am genuinely sorry for that. However he made a lot more money than me and he took all the credit anyway. So not too sorry... The specific answers are: he had no real choice; and no there was no problem with the BBC.
SA: You became the first person to write scripts for Blake’s 7 after Terry Nation with your scripts for Shadow and Weapon and they seem to introduce a change in tone for the series. Travis is now more intense, with his previous discipline and servitude to the Federation weakened, and Blake displays a willingness to cooperate with criminal cartels and drug traffickers. What was the rationale for these changes?
CB: I prefer my heroes and villains a little more nuanced. Heroes can be villainous at times and villains have heroic moments. It's all a bit predictable and dull otherwise, not to mention patronising. Was it Barnum who said nobody lost money underestimating the intelligence of the general public? Somebody said something along those lines anyway. Well I had the feeling that we'd all grown up a bit since then and you underestimated people at your peril. Mind you I thought religion was a thing of the past too...
SA: The tonal shift was developed further in your next script, Trial. Travis is now standing trial for the murder of 1,417 unarmed civilians on the planet Serkasta three years previously. His defence that he reacted instinctively and that his instincts were a product of his training echo some of the real life defences to the My Lai Massacre (16th March 1968) and Bloody Sunday (30th January 1972). How did the Vietnam conflict and the Northern Ireland “troubles” influence the continued development of the series?
Only in so far as they were in the general background and affected mood and understanding. There's a poncy word for that isn't there? Zeitgeist? Can't remember how you spell it and my spell-checker doesn't seem to give a damn. I'm afraid I'm too old and weak to lift down a real dictionary. All right: I'm lazy.
SA: In Star One, it is made clear that the destruction of the Federation’s control complex will result in many, many deaths and Cally, the only other member of the resistance, raises grave reservations as to whether they can do such a thing. Blake attempts to justify his actions by telling her that it is the only way to prove that “he was right.” This apparently fanatical behaviour had been seen in Nineteen Eighty-Four with both Winston and Julia agreeing to commit major acts of sabotage to destroy the Party. What were your thought processes here?
CB: It was a passing thought. In my mind the emphasis should have been on the word "right" not on the word "I". It was intended to be a dark moment of doubt for him rather than the rant of a fanatic. The winners are always right and they write the history. For what it's worth, which is very little, I feel that the end never justifies the means - because there are no ends, only means. (Or to put it another way: the shit keeps on coming).
SA: What is it about Death-Watch that makes it your favorite Blake’s 7 script?
CB: It was the nearest I ever got to writing a western.
SA: A quarter of a decade after you wrote Death-Watch reality television has reached much greater levels of saturation and intensity. The voyeuristic nature of reality television is highlighted by the ability of, and the enjoyment derived by, the inhabitants of the confederacies of Teal and Vandor to mentally link with the combatants prior to and during each duel. What is your view on contemporary media in general and reality television in particular?
CB: Reality TV is for the most part boring, unimaginative and unstimulating (unless you count embarrassment as stimulation) and some of it is plain nasty. There's a lot of airtime to fill these days and the stuff is cheap I suppose (in every sense of the word). The problem is that cheap crap doesn't just fill in the vast empty spaces round the occasionally decent stuff, it actually overwhelms every other possibility. I'm basically very lazy and I don't think I'm uncommon in that respect. Why bother with hard if you can have it easy? Cheap crap takes less effort, is less risky and in the short run is more profitable. In the long run of course audiences decline. The accepted wisdom is that it's because of new media and shorter attention spans and the need for audience involvement. No it's not. It's because of dull crap, and advertising which is even duller crap.
SA: Rescue, required a change in direction for the show following the events of Terminal and the basic plot of the crew’s apparent rescue by Dorian comes not from a science fiction source, but instead from Oscar Wilde’s gothic horror novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Do you have any particular interest in the works of Oscar Wilde or the gothic horror genre?
CB: Not really. But if you are going to steal it's better to steal stuff that's out of copyright...
SA: Amendments to the script were needed to accommodate the introduction of the new character of Soolin. Did an early draft of the script include Cally?
CB: Indeed it did. I'd written a script with her in it. Jan Chappell decided at the last minute she did not want to sign a new contract. That is one of the reasons you have a writer script editor rather than trainee producer script editor.
SA: Do you have any final thoughts on Blake’s 7?
CB: At its worst it was awful; at its best it was as good as almost anything around. And from worst to best I loved every bloody minute of it.
SA: Your BBC Doctor Who book Corpse Marker is actually a Doctor Who/Blake’s 7 crossover, as it features Carnell. Whose idea was it to bring Carnell into the Doctor Who universe?
CB: The editor Steve Cole, blessings be upon him, suggested the subject. If you like the crossover it was my idea: if you don't it was his. Actually I think it might have been his...
SA: Many of your works, including your Kaldor City audio “Death’s Head,” focus on the hidden manipulation of people. Would you say this is a conscious theme of your work, and what are your views on it?
CB: I think it was probably the cold war period I grew up in. Then there was the Kennedy assassination. Conspiracy theories are not the creation of the internet generation you realise. I suppose people are victims of systems and systems are occasionally created but mostly they just grow. It is a conceit of the story-teller to suggest that we can ever know how we are manipulated and to what purpose.
SA: There was talk a few years back that Big Finish would be doing a series of Star Cops audio plays. What happened to the project?
CB: Nobody mentioned it to me. I would have loved to have done it. Still would...
SA: You went on to script edit three crime drama following Blake’s 7; Shoestring, Juliet Bravo and Bergerac. Was it a deliberate decision to move into crime drama on your part and do you have a favorite of these three?
CB: My favourite was Bergerac. And the residuals were better. My only deliberate decision was to keep working. Family to feed; bills to pay.
SA: You devised Star Cops, a hybrid science fiction and crime drama. Did this naturally follow your experience of writing both types of scripts?
CB: Yes. And it went against what I knew which is that hybrids are almost never successful. Let me rephrase that: hybrids are never successful.
SA: You have stated in the past that Star Cops was originally devised for radio. Was that concept much different from the television version?
CB: Not really. After all television is just radio with poorer pictures and less reliable dialogue.
SA: Have you seen any of the new series of Doctor Who and what is your opinion of it?
CB: It's a huge success and you can't knock that. I prefer longer plots which meant the two-parters were more to my taste. I like the scary stuff better. I found myself envying the CGI. Circumstances meant I didn't see all of them. I'll hold my hands up and say I was slightly discomfited by the Doctor's romantic leanings towards Rose and I could have done with less of her family and other families generally.
SA: There were rumours that you were approached by Blake’s 7 Enterprises to work for them in some capacity. Can you tell us more about this?
CB: You mean the people who bought the rights? Nice lads. We had lunch and a few beers. They decided I wasn't for them which was fair enough.
SA: Your association with Doctor Who continued beyond the original series cancellation with the publication of four original novels. With the show back on air, would you be interested in writing a script for it or contributing to the line of BBC Tenth Doctor books?
CB: Absolutely. I would love to. There is a problem though (apart from the fact that they don't want me). Dear old Bob Holmes came out of retirement and took on a commission for a six part Who, and then died. Another writer friend of mine, John Kershaw, turned down the chance of a script commission, and then died. Is there a middle way I ask myself because frankly I don't fancy either of those options.
Thank you Chris.
Find out more about the episodes written by Chris by following the links: