Hi Joseph. You’ve written short stories and audio plays for Big Finish’s Doctor Who range as well as scripts for the television spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. How did you first become involved in writing for the Doctor Who universe?
I’d always enjoyed writing but, didn’t really know how to get anywhere with it. I did a media degree at university but that didn’t help in finding work so, after I graduated I went from job to job, and kept applying for work in the television industry – with no success. In 2001, I decided to pitch a story to Big Finish Productions. I’d always been a fan of Doctor Who although I hadn’t heard any of the audios and had stopped reading the books by that stage. However, I had this idea that I thought might work and, to be honest, it was my last ditch attempt. I’d decided that if this wasn’t successful, I’d have to consider really looking at a career elsewhere. So, I wrote up this idea I’d had about aliens pretending to be DJs, trying to take over the world with dance music and pills, and I sent it off. A few months later I got a letter from Gary Russell saying that he liked it and would I be interested in developing it further. To which I, obviously, said yes.
After that, I ended up doing a lot more work for Big Finish, and then, thanks to a chance meeting in a pub, was employed to write the BBC Doctor Who and Torchwood spin-off websites from Christmas 2005 through to 2007. This got me known at BBC Wales so the Torchwood production team contacted me with regards to writing an over-commission for the second series. The over-commission became a commission and from that I got an agent and The Sarah Jane Adventures and so on.
As a child growing up which specific television programmes have been the biggest inspiration or, to one degree or another, had the greatest influence on your writing today?
Doctor Who was undoubtedly an influence. As a kid, it was just so exciting and scary. And, as I got older, I became fascinated by the history of it. I loved how it had been this epic thing, going on for years, with so many Doctors and companions and adventures. I also loved the soaps and things like Casualty and Miss Marple and so on. I’ve always loved stories – so I watched loads of TV drama, whatever the genre really. I think a huge influence on me, though, was Cracker which I just thought tackled some really clever ideas but presented it all in a mainstream way. It wasn’t trying to be depressingly intellectual or anything like that – but it had proper flawed characters and a great mix of story-of-the-week and ongoing arcs. I still think it’s one of the best shows that’s ever been on television.
With a few possible exceptions most writers are avid or veracious readers. As the greater percentage of your work so far has been either Science Fiction or Fantasy would you say this was indicative of you as a reader? Take me through the kind of books that are sitting on your bookshelves.
I’m actually not really a huge science-fiction fan. I always saw Doctor Who as more horror and adventure. I don’t read as much as I’d like to but, looking across my bookshelves, I can see Douglas Coupland, Brett Easton Ellis, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, a little bit of Shakespeare, a little bit of Charles Dickens, James Herbert, John Wyndham, stuff by some of my mates like Sarah Pinborough and David Llewellyn and quite a few biographies and TV script books. And, of course, Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures! So yeah, I’m not sure how you’d sum up that lot. I guess I like things which, without getting pretentious or worthy, explore the human condition. But, more than that, I just like stuff that’s funny or scary. Or, ideally, both.
Do you remember the first thing you wrote that was rejected and how did you deal with that as an aspiring writer?
I was very lucky in that the first thing I pitched was The Rapture to Big Finish, which got made. There were a couple of short stories over the years at Big Finish which were rejected, but I’ve been very lucky in that it hasn’t happened too much. I’ve had it since with TV series ideas, and worked on shows that then didn’t get past development and, yeah, it’s depressing. I get very into whatever I’m writing, it tends to take over my life, so when you spend all your time and energy and put so much into something, and then it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s obviously not a great feeling. But that’s part of the job so you deal with it. I always keep everything in case an idea might be worth pitching again the following year or cannibalised and used in something else.
Some writers write when the mood takes them, while others treat it as any other 9 to 5-type job with strict routines and personal deadlines. Which kind are you? Talk me through a typical writing day for you.
I don’t think I have a typical writing day really. I’d love to be, and am trying to be more 9-5 – I really envy writers who can do that. I have my own rules, I guess. I always make sure I’m up by 9am (even if I’ve worked into the small hours). The TV doesn’t go on at all during the day. And… actually, I can’t think of any others! I get up, drink lots of tea, smoke too many cigarettes and occasionally eat. I usually faff about on the Internet for half an hour, then reply to emails etc. And then I try to get on with it. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t happen so I’ll do some housework or go for a walk then try again. Sometimes I’ll fly through scenes during the day but then sometimes I won’t get anything substantial written until the evening.
There’s a certain section of the Doctor Who fanbase who are pretty notorious for being quite verbose and ‘free’ with their opinions on episodes, stories and literature they don’t like, particularly now with the growth of the internet. What’s the worst thing you’ve read about one of your own pieces and how do you handle those types of reviews and opinions?
Oh, I’ve read some awful things but you get used to it. In a way, I was pretty lucky in that my first play was really unpopular with a large percentage of online Doctor Who fans. I was never really part of fandom or anything so I didn’t know what they liked or disliked – and a lot of them certainly didn’t like Doctor Who going to Ibiza. That first script was definitely not my best work and I learnt a lot from it, but I actually learnt very little from feedback on the forums or anything. So yeah, I’ve never really written for the fans, even when I was doing the Big Finish stuff, which was ostensibly aimed solely at them.
I still read the forums occasionally but I don’t take any notice of them. There’s so many reasons why someone might like or not like something you’ve written and it’s rarely got that much to do with the actual script. The only times I get even remotely bothered by it are when there’ve been people questioning why I get work, rather than what I’ve written. Accusations of nepotism are always irritating (my favourite was when someone suggested I’m employed because of my ability in bed rather than my writing skills! I wish!) I think the maddest thing I ever read, though, was someone who said that if they ever met me in the pub they’d glass me because of the continuity issues in one of my plays! So yeah, sometimes it’s a bit mad and a bit scary but I’ve a good life, doing the job I love, friends, family, a good social life and so on. So I tend not to care so much what someone with a fake name on the Internet thinks about me.
What advice would you give to all the would-be scriptwriters out there who are desperate to get their scripts looked at and, hopefully, produced?
It’s the oldest advice ever but it’s still the best: if you want to write, write. Just constantly write. And take any opportunity that presents itself – look out for writing schemes, competitions and so on. There are things like the BBC’s Writer’s Academy and companies like Big Finish often have opportunities for unpublished writers. And once you’re in, you’ll start meeting the right people. I’d also say, though, that you need to live a little. Have other jobs, go to the pub etc. Writers need to know how people live and interact and talk to each other so don’t spend your life in a dark room, pretending you’re some tortured undiscovered genius. Get a normal job and write in your spare time. Go to every party you’re invited to. Keep in touch with your friends and family. Not only does all that help you write better, but also it’s the kind of thing that becomes much harder once it’s your full-time job.
You can follow Joe on Twitter here http://twitter.com/joelidster
His audio plays for the Doctor Who and Dark Shadows ranges are still available to order or download at http://www.bigfinish.com/
Joe is currently writting for series 4 of The Sarah Jane Adventures which will be aired on BBC1 later this year.