From Doctor Who to Torchwood: Interview with Big Finish writer and director Scott Handcock
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Big Finish has grown from strength to strength in its storytelling, bringing old Doctors back in Doctor Who, telling new stories with the crew of Blake's 7 and the team at Torchwood, giving new interpretations of the tales of Dorian Grey and Frankenstein and even delving into new adaptations of classic stories and plays like King Lear.
Ahead of the release of Torchwood: Aliens Among Us volume three in February - the final part of 'series five' continuation of the Doctor Who spin-off series, I interviewed the series' director Scott Handcock. Scott is a long standing director, writer and producer at Big Finish and I caught up with him to discuss all things Torchwood, Doctor Who and beyond...
Hi Scott, thank you for taking the time to interview for The Digital Fix.
How long have you been working for Big Finish?
My first script for them was in 2006 and I slowly gravitated towards the production side around 2010. So either way, it's been about a decade or so I've been associated with them. That's frightening!
And what’s been your favourite story you’ve worked on?
That's hard. Do you know, there's so much stuff, you forget. I did a count a year or so or back and think I've done over a hundred different dramas and that's only increased since then. Currently in my mind are [Torchwood] Aliens Among Us and The War Master, both of which have just been a thrill for completely different reasons. But if you ask me again in a couple of months, it will have changed completely.
Let’s talk about Torchwood on Big Finish, something you’ve been heavily involved with. You’ve got the original series one and two cast back together for Torchwood: Believe in April. How did that come about?
It's funny, since we've started Torchwood, everybody’s said ‘you should get the team back together', as if it had never occurred to us! Obviously, from the moment we started, we've been thinking how we get them all together again. But it's been a slow process, you know. In some instances, these actors hadn't played these characters in over a decade, so you want to get them back and make sure they’re comfortable playing the characters again. We've been doing this for a couple of years now, so they're all familiar with who we are and love doing them. It’s just the case that scheduling these actors individually is hard enough, so scheduling them all together is even harder. That’s why it’s taken so long!
So, it was a lot of fun to direct? And was it quite sporadic with different cast members?
Guy Adams has been really clever in the way he's scripted it. It's that really curious thing, that if you watch the original show, there are very rarely scenes with all five characters together. It's just hard to write drama where there are five people in a scene. So what you'll do is have scenes with the group together and then they all have their different B plots. It’s a lovely balance of the Torchwood Team together, but then allowing everyone their moments to shine as individuals.
Believe is a sort of Children of Earth for the original team. They all have their own storylines to contend with and they all overlap with one another as they go. Owen and Tosh get to have their own adventure - something fans have been very excited about since hints on Twitter; Jack does his own thing in the shadows and they've all got their different roles in a much greater narrative.
Now I really wanted to chat about Aliens Among Us, the Big Finish ‘series five’ of Torchwood. How did that come about?
Again, the series five angle was planned from the very beginning of Big Finish taking on the Torchwood licence. Originally, Gary Russell was involved, who used to be the main producer at Big Finish, but then he went to Australia to produce the children’s sci-fi animation Prisoner Zero. Eventually, Gary went 'you know what, I don't have time to do this' so James Goss stepped up to the plate and I came onboard as well.
By that point, the idea was to focus on the original cast in monthly stories, and we already had a script that Gary had been developing with David Llewellyn called The Conspiracy. They’d originally been conceived as dramatic readings, which is why that first one has a lot of narration, which falls by the wayside rather quickly from Fall to Earth onwards… But stories with Gwen - like Forgotten Lives, More Than This, etc - take place in the present, so it was a fun balance of old and new eras slowly building…
I guess that serves to set the scene, setting the scene where Torchwood was now, post-Miracle Day
Yeah, it's funny. When we came back to do the classic series stuff, the series five stuff took a back seat for a while. We thought, let's just do stuff with the classic team, because that's what people want, and so we started with those to reignite the audience.
But the thing I've found fascinating about Torchwood fans is that there's a big difference to Doctor Who. With Doctor Who fans there's always a sort of perceived wisdom about what is good Doctor Who and bad Doctor Who. For instance, City of Death is generally a fan favourite. With Torchwood, you don't seem to have that. For everyone who loves on aspect of Torchwood, someone else loves another thing entirely. And that’s great because it means we’re catering to a wider audience and can really use the different eras and characters to ensure every aspect of Torchwood that people love is represented. Some people only want stories with the original team, for instance; whilst others want stories that drive the Torchwood legend forward… and we’re in a fortunate position where we can tackle all those elements!
So how much was Russell T Davies involved?
Well, Russell knows both James and I of old, because we used to work for BBC Wales on Doctor Who and Torchwood and everything, so he knows and trusts us. It's easy for us to drop him emails and chat about our ideas.
So he wasn't involved in an official capacity; he wasn't telling us you have to do this, you have to do that. But it was good to know you could turn to him and go what do you think of this, what do you think of that? Also, he listens to every single one of them and we'll get messages every so often saying, “I'm just listening to such and such”. It's lovely having that sort of support and know you're not getting it wrong, but also throw any ideas our way based on what he’s enjoyed hearing.
Doctor Who has so much continuity and so many people involved over the years, while Torchwood was Russell's baby from the start; I guess having his blessing helps?
Yeah, I think when he devised Torchwood, he had a very clear idea of where he wanted it to go and the scope of it. And at Big Finish, partly because we're not restricted by budget, we've been able to do more things Russell wanted to do. Also, because radio's a bit more intimate, we can naturally focus on characters, and tell stories that may not have suite the TV medium as well. Made You Look, for instance, is a wonderfully eerie audio because it deprives you of your sight as part of the story, so wouldn't have worked as well on TV and prose...
You have lot of new characters now; I thought Mr Colchester was superb. What was it like to develop a new team, while bringing back John Barrowman and Eve Myles’ Jack and Gwen?
It was interesting, because James Goss wrote the first episode and we'd sort of had a bible that we'd thrown around with Russell. We were very keen that all of these new characters shouldn't feel like carbon copies; you know, replacement versions of any of the original characters.
And it was really interesting when the first publicity pictures went out; I got quite a few angry messages on Twitter from people about Tyler because people thought he was just a Ianto replacement, purely because they saw him in a suit. If you listen to the audios, he couldn't be less like Ianto if he tried. Lots of people wear suits!
Mr Colchester isn't like any character we’ve had before either. And we were very keen to have an alien/non-gender character as well [which become Orr]. Ng came about quite honestly because Eve Myles was unavailable due to the Victoria series and we couldn’t guarantee her availability further down the line. But everyone, including Eve, was keen that we didn't delay the series five stuff.
With that in mind, we agreed an idea with Russell that Gwen was possessed or inhabited by alien creature, so everyone thought she was Gwen, and we could then get another actor in to play 'her'. This actually gave the stories a very different dynamic. Russell said, quite rightly, if you do this, you can only do it once, so do all the things with Gwen you would never normally do. So that was fun; although a lot of people didn’t realise it wasn't Eve!
To be honest, the first time I listened to [Aliens Among Us Volume 1] and I saw the cast, with Alexandria Riley playing Ng, I asked 'who was she?' I couldn't place her, to the point that when I came to Volume 2, I actually had to go back and review what I thought about the story with Gwen and Ng retrospectively. I couldn't really tell the difference.
Alexandria was great and has exactly the same energy as Eve. She just slips in and convinces you that she's Gwen, but in a slightly off way so you notice something’s not right. And that was interesting to play around with. Of course, because we didn't want to blow the twist, people assumed it was Eve Myles sounding a bit different. In a way, we cast too well, as people thought it was her still!
I thought the show really captured the spirit of the second series of Torchwood. On screen, the first season had to experiment with its storytelling; but season two was more confident and that was what I noticed with Aliens Among Us.
What was your favourite story of the Aliens Among Us box sets?
That's a really tough one, but you're right, there is a confidence with that second series of Torchwood on TV, and maybe if we'd just gone straight into series five at Big Finish, we wouldn't have felt quite so strong. I think doing all the monthly stuff gave us that confidence. By the time we came to record it, we’d had several years of planning, plus all those other dramas, so we knew what worked and what didn’t…
In terms of stories, they've all been brilliant. I think Changes Everything is still one of my favourites because it was just introducing the new team and the new dynamic and setting all those elements up. And it feels like a fresh start. But there's so much fun, silly stuff too; what I love about Torchwood is that you can have some really emotional drama and also some really absurd ideas, and none of it compromises the other. Kill To A View (with Billis Manger returning) is in its way as camp as Christmas but really, really dark as well. I love that - it means you can subvert expectations.
I think that was my favourite story.
Yeah, they're all so good. We're really lucky with our guest cast and our leads as well, that it makes it really easy.
It was extreme; you'd have for example the hen party [Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy], which you couldn't image happening on screen and then you had Orr, with the intimate moments with Jack where she is going to die. There was a really nice balance between them.
Exactly! And I'd forgotten about the hen party scene!
We have the final box set coming out now in February. Is there anything you can tease about that?
Well, Yvonne Hartman is back, which again, was down to Russell, just saying we should have more Tracy-Ann (and when we said, “but she’s dead”, explaining how she could come back!). We started recording Aliens Among Us two years ago, back in May 2016, so it's been a long time in development...
Did you record it in three blocks like the different volumes?
Yeah, kind of. Certainly with the UK side of things. But again, because of people's different availabilities, we didn’t want to announce it until we everything was in the can. For trivia fans, Eve Myles’s scenes were the first thing we recorded, and Tracy-Ann Oberman’s were the last.
As for what can I tease you about volume three? Well, Yvonne Hartman does come back and she shakes up the dynamic completely. Just when you think you've got to grips with the new team and Torchwood in 2017/2018, it all changes again.
And a lot of the stuff we've been seeding through the series, particularly with the Gwen arc, comes to a head. It sounds like a cliché, but we can't guarantee everyone will make it out alive. James Goss has written a very clever finale that ties up a lot of stuff but leaves a lot of threads dangling.
And is there plan for a 'series six' series for Torchwood, or is it too early to tell?
When you're working on something like this, you're always thinking “if we got to do more, where would we take it?” James and I talk constantly about stuff like this, and the audience response has been very positive to the new gang so...stay tuned!
The other thing I wanted to discuss was last year’s superb The War Master: Only the Good, with Derek Jacobi. How did that come about?
For years I've wanted to do a box set with the Master, because I think, if you take him away from the Doctor and have him succeed, you can have an interesting - not even an anti-hero - just a successful villain. We were always told on TV just how brilliant he is, but we never got to see what he did.
A couple of years ago, when [Big Finish] was in full John Hurt War Doctor mode, we were in a meeting and I said look, we have the licence for the new series, we're doing the War Doctor, why not do the War Master? Again, I thought it was a really interesting spin on the character. With the Doctor, it's either McGann running away from the Time War or John Hurt at the heart of the fight. Whereas Jacobi, or rather the War Master, is not going to fight in the war, he's not going to run from it; he's going to be on the fringes, just exploiting all the fallout from it all.
There were some really interesting scenarios to put him in, and also it means, because of the sort of stuff he'd be doing, he wouldn't naturally run into the Doctor anyway. That meant, continuity wise, we were clear. I remember Big Finish all nodding and saying it would be great, and we spoke to Derek's agent and Derek was keen to come back. I then spoke to Russell, who just went “No! Derek Jacobi wasn't the Master in the Time War!” I then explained how we'd do it and he went, “Oh, that's fine!”, which is why the box set ends the way it does.
It's a nice tie into the series.
Yeah, I know a lot of fans have said, and this may be a spoiler, that Yana's memories of childhood were made up, a bit like John Smith in Human Nature. And I thought that as well, but it was Russell who said he was actually a baby and those memories were real. I learned he’d also had similar conversations with Gary Russell back when Gary was compiling the Doctor Who Encyclopedia!
I always assumed he wasn't the actual Master until Utopia because it did state explicitly he was a baby to start with. But I like you wrapped up the story; it nicely dovetailed into the end of series three while having fun exploring this incarnation of the Master too.
All we did was regress him so that he could leave that first seventy years of his life as a human. Because Yana does live a full, human life. It doesn’t mean he couldn’t have had the very same face beforehand…
And what was it like to direct the great Derek Jacobi?
It was a dream. Honestly, he just the sweetest man. You always get a little apprehensive with people of that stature, particularly because he's a Knight of the Realm. On day one, I asked how he liked to be addressed, and he’s so down to Earth and doesn’t care about titles. A real team player! It was just a lovely atmosphere, and I'm thrilled I got to do more with him on Gallifrey as well.
I understand as well as Gallifrey, which you also directed, his Master will also be turning up in UNIT too?
Yeah, that came about afterwards. Gallifrey was actually recorded before The War Master, as part of the same block. It was the first thing we did with Derek. But UNIT came about afterwards because he had such a good time playing the War Master and on the last day he said 'please can I come back?' And we thought 'well, you’re only Sir Derek Jacobi!' So we made plans and now he's popping up in UNIT too this year.
Are there any more plans for another War Master box set with Derek Jacobi?
The weird thing is, everyone heard the end and thought you can't do anymore because of how that first set ended, but Tom Baker regenerated in 1981 and they're still doing stories with him. Just because you've seen the end of the character, doesn't mean you can't set stuff before. So we're absolutely not ruling anything out. Derek has said he wanted to work with us more, so we'd be mad not to be thinking about it. And, as I say, he’s appearing in UNIT: Cyber-Reality in a few months time!
You recently worked with Kai Owen and Alexandria Riley from Torchwood on your BBC radio comedy Long Way From Home. Is it nice to direct the same people again?
It's always lovely. I like working with all the actors we get in for Big Finish, but I think the more you work with people, the more you build up a rapport. So when Long Way From Home came about for BBC Wales, I knew I wanted a Welsh cast and it just seemed to be a natural fit to go for people like Kai and Alex.
I listened to it last night. I didn't expect the twist; to go from a 'coming out' story to a sort of Superman origins story.
Yeah, it's weird. It was pitched very quickly; because Jay Harley used to be a producer at the BBC and was looking for ideas and said just pitch one. And I couldn't think of anything so I went 'family on holiday and alien Harry Potter, a kid who discovers he is an alien. And I think that's how she pitched it to BBC Radio - an alien Harry Potter, and that's such a simple idea to latch on to.
And we got a nice one-off pilot out of it. It was also nice to do something completely original, set aside from everything else.
You’ve got an upcoming Big Finish story from the Doctor Who main range coming up too? Can you tell us anything about The Helliax Rift?
That's Peter Davison with UNIT for the first time which is quite exciting. You kind of forget, because he met the Brigadier, that he's never had a full-on UNIT story. And Alan Barnes wanted to do something with the new UNIT team in the main rage and asked me to pitch ideas and that's how it came about really.
I also awkwardly became producer for the Fifth Doctor stories and this is the first one. So it looks as if I've shamelessly positioned myself for my first story as producer but it was commissioned long before that happened. But I was saying to David Richardson, ‘this makes me look like an egomaniac!'
You also wrote for Peter Davison’s Doctor in last year’s Classic Doctors New Monsters story Empire of the Racnoss. Is Davison your Doctor?
I love all the classic Doctors, but it does feel as if I have grown more towards Peter somehow. He's the more youthful Doctor but he's also got a wonderful sarcasm about him, which appeals to my sense of humour so it's probably quite a neat fit. He's very dry and I’m enjoying that aspect of his character.
To end on then, what’s the best thing about working on Big Finish?
The best thing about Big Finish is just the freedom and variety. I'm obviously doing stuff like Doctor Who and Torchwood but I also get to do Cicero and the horror series Blind Terror, whilst there's been the Dorian Gray series for years, and stuff like Frankenstein, Dracula, Vienna, Iris Wildthyme, The Prisoner… the list goes on!
There's all sort of little pockets of stuff, you never feel trapped in the machine; one day you're doing a nice Doctor Who script and then you've got an 'out there' Torchwood and then you're back doing something else and it sort of tests you every time you come back to it. It’s a challenge and a joy, every time!
Scott, thank you so much for your time!
You can check The Digital Fix's reviews of some of Scott Handcock's more recent work below...
Doctor Who: Classic Doctors, New Monsters: Volume 2
Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Volume 1
Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Volume 2
The War Master: Only The Good
You can also still listen to Long Way From Home on BBC iPlayer here.
We'll be bringing our review of Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Volume 3 soon, and you can check out our Big Finish page for more reviews...