Interview with Daniel O'Mahony
J. Bruce McGilligan talks with Daniel O'MahonyDoctor Who, Bernice Summerfield and Kaldor City author and creator of the characters of Honore Lechasseur and Emily for Telos' Time Hunter spinoff series, about the genesis and development of the new Kaldor City CD, "Storm Mine", making the transition from print to audio, and why he's taking up hypnotism.
How did you first encounter Kaldor City?
I first heard about it when it was announced in Doctor Who Magazine and in the fan press. I really had no idea of what the series would be like until I sat down to listen to the first CD. I hadn't even read Corpse Marker. To be honest, I wasn't terribly interested in Doctor Who audio spinoffs at that time. I'd heard a couple of early Big Finishes that hadn't left much of an impression - and neither had any of the radio series or Death Comes to Time for that matter! For the most part audio was something that happened while I wasn't listening.
However, I'd known Fiona Moore for a couple of years and she talked me into reviewing "Occam's Razor" for www.kaldorcity.com. I think the review's still up there and probably very embarrassing as I'm sure I missed the point completely!
What did you think of the series?
I really liked "Occam's Razor". I think, with hindsight, it's probably the slightest of the Kaldor City's - if only because it was the set-up and the series has developed and deepened over subsequent plays - but at the time I was impressed. I liked the fact that it was funny and worked on various different levels. It was obviously well-produced but also it seemed right for the medium. It wasn't a pastiche but it really inhabited and used and tested audio in the same way that the best Doctor Who novels or comics had always done.
I'm not sure I could pick a favourite. I think a lot of people would go for "Taren Capel" and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that, because it's a very audience-pleasing episode. "Death's Head"'s probably the one that made me realise that it's all about circles and power-loops. "Hidden Persuaders" is about the physicalness of Kaldor City, it's the one where you can work out what the city smells like. "Checkmate" does the opposite and goes to the cosmic scale and makes you realise how insignificant all the back-stabbing and power games really are. Each of the stories is very distinct but very consistent at the same time. Right from the start, from "Occam's Razor", it was obvious that a lot of thought and effort had gone into making it.
So I have a lot to live up to.
What was the sequence of events which resulted in you writing for it?
I picked up each of the new plays as they came out and kept in contact with Fiona and Alan Stevens, who I'd met through Fiona. We discussed the series and for some reason they tolerated my odd ideas and wilful density - it took me ages to work out who David Collings' character was supposed to be! I must have been saying something they liked because they kept talking to me. As it was obviously more of a serial than a series I hadn't really considered the idea of pitching anything because I imagined the writing had all been settled on. When talking to Alan and Fiona I'd occasionally come out with eccentric ideas but just as feedback, things that I'd picked up from the stories.
I think it was around the start of 2004 that Alan started to sound me out about writing something for Magic Bullet. This was some months after "Checkmate" had come out and that had seemed like a definite conclusion to the series. It was also after Russell Hunter had died so I didn't think Kaldor City would be likely to go any further. What I imagined Alan had in mind was a ten to twenty minute piece along the lines of "Kaldor City: The Prisoner", the play which appeared on the Paul Darrow - The Actor Speaks CD- something that would showcase one of the characters and probably end up on a Tales from Kaldor City-type anthology. Apart from anything else I couldn't convince myself that I could write anything longer than twenty minutes.
Then it all escalated alarmingly!
What do you think you bring to the series?
Lapsed Catholic guilt. Lawrence Miles was sitting in on the recording and during one of the climactic sequences he turned to me and whispered: "You are such a Catholic!" He also came away with the impression that Iago is American so I'm don't entirely trust his judgement on the matter.
I don't know. Generally my strengths as a writer aren't the strengths of Kaldor City. I can do complicated plotting but it takes an effort and a lot of time. Intrigue and politicking fascinate me in drama but I'm no good at doing them myself. "Storm Mine" sounds a bit quieter and smaller-scale than some of the earlier plays, a bit more intimate - but still consistent with what's gone before.
Why did you choose those particular characters to continue the storyline?
The principal returning character is Blayes, played by Tracy Russell. She's probably the character who has changed the most over the course of the series - not as a person in terms of her loyalties and her view of the world. She has a restless aspect to her personality that the others don't have and I thought was worth picking up on. She's also Iago's opposite number, almost a parody of him, and it's interesting to see how they're similar and how they differ.
Mainly though I was being perverse. When you look at the situation the various leading characters are in by the end of "Checkmate", Blayes is the last one you'd expect to stage a comeback. Iago came into it as the story expanded out of the twenty minutes. Magic Bullet made it clear that if they were going to do another full length story then Paul Darrow should appear and after being resistant to the idea for a few minutes, I suddenly worked out how to do it while waiting for a train in the middle of the night.
In the end, Iago was probably the easiest character to write dialogue for. Paul Darrow sat in my head and told me what to do. That's what I'm planning to say in court.
You've worked on other Doctor Who spinoff series as well. How do the experiences compare?
"Storm Mine" is actually my first Doctor Who spinoff of any real length so there isn't really that comparison. The work I've done for the Bernice Summerfield series and for The Book of the War were literally short stories. I think what distinguishes them from "Storm Mine" is that it's the first time I've really had to engage with an ongoing story. If you look at the two Bernice stories that I wrote for Big Finish, they focus on her and ignore a lot of the background format. I doubt I've read or listened to more than a quarter of the post-Doctor Who Benny stories but I was still very confident writing for her. I doubt I could have written "Storm Mine" if I hadn't listened to all the previous Kaldor City CDs.
Despite appearances, I actually have very little to do with Telos' Time Hunter novellas. The Cabinet of Light was conceived and written as a Doctor Who story without thought on my part to do anything more with the characters; the spinoff series happened after the fact. So "Storm Mine" was a new experience in a lot of different ways.
Although you've written a number of novels and novellas, this is your first audio. How did you find making the transition from prose to script?
Writing a script wasn't that daunting. The challenge was more about writing for audio - and also writing from the knowledge that it might actually be produced and that it would be very easy for me to mess it up for everyone else. Anyone who's read my books will know that I tend to be heavy on description. I like writing dialogue but it doesn't predominate. Writing for TV, all the description has to be pared down and writing for audio even more so. The first draft script I wrote included an amount of establishing material just for reference but by the final draft I was aiming for minimalism - just effects, dialogue and scene headings.
Script-writing involves thinking in different ways to prose. In a novel, novella or short story the writer has to imagine everything completely and communicate that to the reader. In audio writers can't throw their weight around so much. In the end a script is just a blueprint.
Did you know who was going to be cast in the roles when you were writing them (bar Paul Darrow and Tracy Russell, of course) and if so, did you write it to the actor?
I'd heard that Magic Bullet were talking to Philip Madoc while I was developing the storyline. This was at a fairly early stage before any of the characters had really emerged, so the role he's ended up playing was very much developed and written with him in mind. I didn't watch any of his performances specifically, though there was a time during the writing when I couldn't turn on the TV without seeing him. The biggest temptation was to write in lines like "Your name will also go on the list!" but I managed to resist that.
John Leeson was first mentioned to me while I was first working on draft scripts but I don't think the casting affected the way I wrote for his character. Gregory de Polnay joined the cast quite late on so there wasn't a specific influence there. On the other hand, D84 was the default voice for robot dialogue in my head, so I was probably writing for him on a subconscious level anyway.
I'm sure I'm not giving anything away by saying that he plays a robot.
You say you visited the studio during the recording. What was it like watching the actors perform your script?
The screenwriter William Goldman once said that a writer's first day on set is the most exciting of their life and that the second is the most boring. The "Storm Mine" recording was my first day - I haven't had a second yet! It was very strange and very exciting hearing some of the dialogue I'd written being delivered exactly as I'd imagined and other lines coming out sounding new and unfamiliar. The actual experience of hearing the production as it happened was - not overwhelming as such but - immersing. I just let it wash over me and tried not to interrupt too much.
I think I spent as much time out of the studio as I did in the gallery. Mainly I was apologising to the actors for not giving them enough to say. Tracy Russell, on the other hand, spent more or less the whole day in studio so I then felt guilty for not giving her more of a break! I imagined, as a fan, it would be very easy to get intimidated by some of the better-known actors involved and I was probably right.
What are your plans for the future?
I always have a few proposals or ideas on the go at any one time. I woke up very depressed one morning recently as I realised that I had more than half a dozen writing projects needing dealing with and not one of them was bringing in any money. Being a writer is a condition of hectic poverty.
I am (still) writing the Great 21st Century novel at the rate of about two pages a year, so I need to pick up speed there. Apart from that I haven't the first idea what the next project will be, though I'm taking up hypnotism in case I meet Russell T. Davies in the near future. I'd like to do more audio work, definitely after "Storm Mine", but I don't think I could give up prose. I want to do everything. I don't think that's a problem.
This interview has previously appeared in Celestial Toyroom Issue 321.
Images copyright Alan Stevens 2004