Big Finish returns to its wonderful audio-prose ways with another round of narrated short stories. And Short Trips Vol. 12 promises to be quite the listen, based on the synopsises & narrator involved. Before its release today, we spoke to some of the box-set’s talented scribes. And we present the first two of four intriguing interviews: Angus Dunican (writer of Vol. 12’s Third Doctor story AWOL) & Felicia Barker (writer of Vol. 12’s Eleventh Doctor story The Galois Group).
Interviews conducted by Oliver Lott. Interview questions courtesy of Oliver Lott & Jamie H. Cowan.
To talk our way towards Short Trips Vol 12 with Angus, we must first start somewhere earlier than that…
Angus Dunican interview
Where It All Began
You’ve written, voice-acted, stage-acted, acted in short films and on TV, done stand-up comedy… So, I think it has to be asked: where did a creative passion start for you? Has it always been something you’ve had in mind since you were very young? What was the first of these that you branched into professionally?
That’s a fun question! I’ve always only ever wanted to be a creative person. It didn’t seem like something you were allowed to do as a job. I went to quite an old fashioned school and both my parents had quite indoorsy, officey professions. When I had my first proper part in a play, though, at age 12… I think that’s where I began a slightly unhealthy addiction to having an audience.
I left that school as their first ever drama scholar.
My secondary school nurtured that side of things far, far better. Their drama department had been built from the ground up by a very formidable woman named Nicolette Miles. I left there pretty much laser-focused on becoming an actor. Sadly, despite dozens of auditions over three years, I couldn’t get into one of the big drama schools.
It was during this time that I dared myself into doing stand-up at a local club. The comedy scene was so, so, so much smaller in the early 00’s. It was possible to progress professionally much quicker than it is today. That is – if you were willing to travel. I got paid to make people laugh which was (and remained) a privilege by age 20.
The Trip Before Short Trips Vol 12
Fresh off a stand-up run at the Edinburgh Fringe, you come to work on your Big Finish debut. How did Deleted Scenes come about*? And what drew you towards Jamie McCrimmon as the focus character for a Short Trip story?
Oh well in fact I wrote it over a year before. I took Edinburgh 2018 off so that I could get it into my producer, Alfie Shaw, on time. Big Finish’s pipeline for releases can be very long. Deleted Scenes was in the can for over a year before release and that’s relatively quick! The story was based on an idea my partner had had. She was doing her PHD at the time on a ‘film-history adjacent’ topic.
She had proffered to me the premise of a film historian discovering evidence of time travel. It was via a lost film which featured impossible special effects for the period. That sparked something in my head and damn near the entire story involving Jamie, the Doctor and Celine Tessier (an invented analogue for real life film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché) just sort of unfolded for me.
A transtemporal, tragi-romantic, Moffat-like story but mapped onto the texture of the Troughton era. I think the idea of it featuring Jamie especially appealed because I wanted the story to very much be about the magic of that time. To make it about film-making in Paris during the Belle Époque. Jamie’s naivety would allow us to experience that excitement vicariously. But the truth is that my partner, Dr. Clarissa Kennedy Jacob (PHD), deserves the credit for the original idea.
As to how it actually got commissioned, well, Alfie Shaw was one of my improv students at the time. We would have drinks after class and talk Doctor Who stuff. Once, after several pints, he asked me what story I would do if I had the opportunity. I blurrily pitched several at him but the one that stuck in his head was the story that would become Deleted Scenes.
He’d been given the brief of finding another story to double up on a recording day with Frazer Hines. This was the perfect vehicle for him to really shine as Jamie. To do some careful unpacking of his character that the format and sensibilities of 60’s television didn’t always allow for. So Alfie, without even telling me, threw my idea into the mix and came back, somewhat delighted, to tell me that they wanted it. Though not half as delighted as me.
[*A. Ed.’s Note: Short Trips used to be released as individual monthly stories. Deleted Scenes was thus, effectively, released as the second story of Vol. 10. This changed with Vol. 11 and Short Trips Vol 12 continues this.]
On that, what are your first memories of Doctor Who?
I remember being mesmerised by watching Colin Baker (though not really him) regenerate into Sylvester McCoy when I was barely 4 years old. Young me had MANY questions for my older brother – the source of all wisdom on this topic. I also met the real Colin and was part of a group of children invited backstage at ‘The Ultimate Adventure’. This was when it came to my home town of Eastbourne. It was BEYOND thrilling. Thereafter, it was the early VHS releases – specifically ‘Death to the Daleks’ and ‘Pyramids of Mars’ – pretty much on repeat. Those two stories are printed on my bones.
Now, technically, Deleted Scenes was a bit of a Valentine’s Day special, given the topic of the story and its release on a February 14th. Is it a bit of a challenge trying to plot out how to tackle such a hefty topic and set up a romantic dynamic in the space of 40 minutes?
It was a massive challenge for me because I’m a horrendous over-writer. My first draft was around 16000 words, so twice the maximum length for a Short Trip. That first draft contains, ironically, MANY ‘deleted scenes’ and a few ancillary characters that had to be cut for time.* But, I think the story is the better for it. The hardest things to leave on the floor were to do with Celine’s inner thoughts and feelings and those of Christophe Castile, her spurned lover. There’s a very indulgently French scene of him drunk and mad with jealousy that I was very sad to see go.
What became a saving grace was the fact that I’d built in a framing narrative – that of the lecture from the film historian – and cutting back to that allowed me to do time jumps in Jamie and Celine’s relationship. Through this, what we end up hearing are more like selected episodes from a long, sweet summer together. I guess you have to make what you DON’T see do the work for you.
What was nice, though, was finding a dimension whereby Jamie had the space and time to fall in love. There is only one point where the Doctor and Jamie are travelling as just a duo, namely just after ‘Fury from the Deep’. So that necessity gave rise to the lovely discovery, when writing, that some of Jamie’s motivation is his sense of loss over the departure of Victoria.
[*A. Ed.’s Note: Well, if John Dorney can reveal his unrecorded epilogue for Return of the Cybermen on Twitter – then I shall live in hope for a ‘Deleted Scenes: The Scenes Deleted‘ thread one day!]
The story also has a little twist in that it actually ends with another Doctor. How much discussion went into that? Because that is unusual in the Short Trips category…
I think it was something of a USP to be honest. I wasn’t sure it would be allowed. But Alfie stuck it in as an epilogue in the treatment he sent up the ladder and no one questioned it. So we both just shrugged, whistled and walked out the door – trying to act casual I think! Frazer was certainly surprised, I don’t think he’d quite clocked it. He was a bit taken aback by having to embody another Doctor on the fly. He was very game about it though and I think you’ll agree he did a great job.
It was important to me, though, that the Doctor come back at some later point in his life and put things right. Through his actions in this story, though well-meaning, he ends up writing a woman and her work out of history. While this might have been acceptable collateral damage when the Doctor was still a fugitive, it struck me that the morality of a latter-day Doctor (and more especially when leaned on by a particular companion) wouldn’t have much time for this sort of thing.
So, in this way, I hope the story has a soft meta-reading as being about the necessity for men to do the work of restoring women’s place in the canon of history – a topic very dear to one Dr. Jacob’s heart I should say or else risk sounding like an astounding hypocrite!
Time Fracture Times
Moving on, you’ve not just written in the Whoniverse. You were a part of the immersive theatrical experience Time Fracture! Albeit delayed somewhat by COVID, it came together for a lovely 2021–2022 run. What was that like to work on—playing Shakespeare, a Cyberman and perhaps other parts? (TF is a wonderfully interesting thing to hear about where cast have had to understudy or cover parts at certain times, so we’re not assuming we know it all…)
Time Fracture was a dream – not least because it was one of the few times in my life when I have felt qualified for a job. I have a fairly robust background in Shakespeare, immersive theatre, improv and – of course. Doctor Who so when it came to the audition, instead of the usual doubt there was (for once) a voice in my head saying…
“Sure, you could give this job to someone else… but you would objectively be making a mistake!”
Though playing a Cybermen could be a bit thankless and uncomfortable. I grew to become very grateful for the respite that it offered me. Pretty much everyone in the cast was playing at least two speaking roles. The demands of the show (in that space, fighting the volume of the sound design and the audience) meant that it was stunningly easy to lose your voice. Playing the Cyberman half the week meant that I could rest my voice 50% of the time.. Which was good because my Shakepeare was a big, loud sod!
Towards the end, I also started doing a few shows as Victorian Torchwood agent Captain Steven Davies. I loved this but made a bit of a meal over it considering that some people (like my friends Sam Hunt and the indomitable Harry Pudwell) ended up playing something like 13 or 14 different characters over the course of the year.. maybe more!
I could write fairly endlessly about the year I spent on Time Fracture. Though not without its challenges, I just felt so lucky to be surrounded by so many astonishingly talented, funny, generous and VERY clever people. The whiplash of talking to more neurotypical human beings after you’ve hung out with the Time Fracture cast for a bit is quite something. I was a bit of an outsider to begin with. So many of them knew each other from doing Secret Cinema and The Great Gatsby*. They were gorgeous to me and like family now. I miss them very much.
[*A. Ed.’s Note: other productions of the same format, also run by the Immersive Theatre company]
Two funny challenges, actually, of playing an immersive Doctor Who production as a historical character. You get the Whovians – and the Shakespeare buffs – and you don’t know what they’re going to say or ask. Someone might ask about Shakespeare meeting the Ninth Doctor. Or what it was like to write ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’. Or even call you Christopher Marlowe. How do you handle that? How do you prepare for that beforehand in terms of character research?
Well because of my interest in both Shakespeare and Doctor Who, I had a fairly ‘COME AT ME BRO!’ attitude towards that. However, preparing for what the audience could throw at you was half the fun. With immersive theatre, the rehearsal process can be very much like building a beta version of an algorithm or a dialogue tree in an RPG/adventure game. There are the things that your character NEEDS to say to further the story. There are also the things that your character COULD say, if sufficiently prompted. In rehearsal, you build up all this content (via improvisation) by layers and what works gets added to the algorithm. However, the only way to test it is by exposing it to the random factor that is the audience. This – in turn – generates more good, usable stuff in the moment….sometimes!
Occasionally you’d get something that would really throw you. It’s like the time a woman interrogated me about Shakespeare getting done for poaching as a young man but that’s fine. It’s OK to be baffled, just be baffled ‘in character’.
Because I was sharing the role of Shakespeare with a fantastic and very experienced immersive actor named Max Krupski, we would share all of our findings, funny moments and new discoveries with each other as we took it in turns to play Shakespeare. This meant that – by the end – we had an answer for pretty much everything.
Special mention has to go to a young man named Davin. He came on a relatively quiet performance, on his own and in full 9th Doctor Cosplay. He and I had a very good time just being The Doctor and Shakespeare together. Neither of us blinking in our commitment to the bit. But the great sting in the tail came as he left my study to go explore. He said, “I’m very sorry to hear about your son.” but because we had decided that our Shakespeare’s personal ‘present’ was BEFORE his son’s untimely death.
This comment threw a sudden pall over our goodbye. So I said something like, “My son… he bides well and still with my Anne in Warwickshire. Pray, what dark tidings do you bring to my door?” and Davin beautifully switched gears into ‘regretful Time Lord’ saying something like, “I’m so sorry, I’ve said too much.” and left me sitting down hurriedly to write a letter home.
It was just such a great, poignant, little Doctor Who moment that occurred completely naturally and never to be repeated. Great stuff.
Short Trips Vol 12
And moving on to the now – AWOL. It sounds like an intriguing story, even off the synopsis alone. To handle the sort-of mutually beneficial & supportive relationship that underlies the Third Doctor and the Brigadier. They’ll have their arguments and their disagreements, but what would happen if they actually were split from each other for a long time… How that would impact UNIT operations… Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well I can’t go into too much detail about this one as it’s not out yet*. However, I can definitely say that this – like Deleted Scenes – is very much an attempt to do the kind of character-led unpacking that you wouldn’t get as much of in the classic series, as you would in the post 2005 show, but doing it in a way that feels authentic to the era. Something that really bugs me in film and TV at the moment is the slightly tin-eared way in which mid 20th century dialogue is written.
There are tell-tale bits of phrasing and vocabulary that just simply weren’t in use until later. It brings me out of it. It’s easy for me to over-obsess about this stuff but because this story was being voiced by Jon Culshaw, conjuring the illusion of having Pertwee and Courtney back with us became really important to me. Getting the dynamic between the 3rd Doctor and the Brigadier (two conflicting styles of ‘’buttoned down and patrician’) and their conversational tics absolutely right.
But again, as with Jamie, the crux of this story comes from where it sits in the continuity and I think it’s alright to tell you that this story comes quite early in The Doctor and the Brigadier’s relationship. It pertains to something The Brig did that made The Doctor very angry – something I think a more modern version of the show would pump the breaks on a little and go ‘Hang on! We need to talk about this.’ and that’s where we find ourselves. It’s two people who’ve had an ad-hoc relationship up until this point, stepping outside their usual context to truly get the measure of each other. To push each other a little and see what their respective limits are. I think it came out really well.
[*A. Ed.’s Note: Our interview with Angus was done on January 21st, for anyone curious…]
Of course, February is quite the month for you. You’ve had a Short Trip out in a February… and now you’ve not just got that in February this year – you’ve also got an Eleventh Doctor full-cast audio story releasing too!* How does full-cast audio writing differ from writing for the more introspective and character-driven Short Trips range?
It varies to be honest. These 11th Doctor stories had a very long gestation period. The direction of where the interconnected stories were going changed a few times. As such, the story I first pitched is really quite different to the one that ended up being recorded. But that’s what writing for part of a series is nearly always like. Your story has to be compatible with various add-ons and adapters to make it work. It’s part of the narrative machinery of a series. It’s a great challenge and I learned a lot as a writer doing it.
What I will say is that, with Short Trips, you usually don’t have to worry about having too many minor or ancillary characters. You can have fairly perfunctory ‘walk on parts’, so to speak, because they will be voiced by the same person – the one with all the GOOD lines! They get the whole pie. In a full cast job, you have to be a bit more conscientious. Someone once said that if you’re writing for actors, your goal is for them to be THRILLED that they’re the one who gets to say ‘That line!’.
You should try and make sure that there are characterful and poetic treats for everyone to say. Obviously, with Doctor Who, it’s difficult because the temptation is to give all the best stuff to the charming, big-mouthed, whirlwind-person who’s show it is… but it pays to make sure that everyone else has got a decent slice of pie to themselves. Gotta keep the talent happy.
[*A. Ed’s Note: The Yearn – the second story in The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles 4: All of Time and Space. This boxset will feature the Eleventh Doctor travelling with Valarie Lockwood, a character relevant to Short Trips Vol 12 as you’ll see later in this article when we speak to Felicia…]
Finally, you’ve covered four Doctors now (if we include that cameo…) in your writing. Which Doctor would you like to tackle next?
Seven. Hands down. I was just old enough to watch the last three seasons of the classic show go out live (I still have them on VHS, taped on their original transmission dates – like trapped ghosts!) it would mean more to me than I can say to have Sylvester and Sophie speak words that I have written. I think lots of fans of my specific age harbour that dream. To be the one who gets to tell the story about the rivers that dream or the cities made of song.
What a fascinating and thorough set of answers from Angus about his work. We certainly are looking forward to hearing his Short Trips Vol 12 story…(and wish him the best of fortunes that after Short Trips Vol 12, he will get to tackle the Seventh Doctor) Speaking of looking forward to a story, let’s move onto our chat with Felicia Barker…
Felicia Barker interview
Short Trips Past…
So, how did writing a Doctor Who story come about? I’m sure at the time of the initial release, you made a point that you were a fan first and foremost – rather than a writer...
I originally caught Alfie Shaw’s eye via a submission to the Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trips opportunity. I’d been having a crack at that since its inception – it’s a fantastic opportunity. It was a lovely way to commemorate Paul. It has been a source of numerous new voices – and had already had some great feedback in past years from Ian Atkins. Alfie was just taking over the Short Trips range at the time and looking for writers. So, he contacted me about writing for one of the subscriber Short Trips slots. You’re quite right that at the time I was definitely a fan first. Home is the first thing I wrote other than for my own amusement!
And Home Again, Home Again was the last of the Subscribers Short Trips. Was it therefore a very conscious choice to tackle the first ‘TARDIS team’ & bring it back to 1963?
It wasn’t the very last, although it was the last recorded by the much-missed Stephen Critchlow.* John Banks came in to do the final three recordings. I suspect those four were originally planned together as the final recording block, but I don’t actually know. I only found out the monthly range was ending at the same time as everyone else – in May of 2020, by which time Home was long since written and recorded.
The original seed of the story came from reading The Witch Hunters*, and pondering the fact that whilst the Doctor is trying to get Ian and Barbara home. He has also taken Susan from her home, and in such a way that she can’t go back. I’d considered a few different angles on the story before it occurred to me in quick succession that the central conflict would be around the Doctor forbidding them to leave, and that the most elegant way to do that would be to cross their timeline. In retrospect, it was obvious that they should be going back to (before) the beginning!
[*A. Ed’s Note: Felicia is absolutely correct. Terribly, I had forgotten that there were three further Subscriber Short Trips in the range after this one.]
[**A. Ed’s Note: The Witch Hunters is one of the Past Doctor Adventures novels; written by Steve Lyons and released in March 1998. Some will be more familiar with its reprint since then as part of a ‘History’ collection of reprints.]
On that, of course, at the time of the show going out in the 1960s… companion-centric stories didn’t really get a chance to happen (just by nature of how the show was then) so how was it approaching writing for characters like Ian and Barbara in a more ‘modern’ way & emotionally putting them in that tough situation of being home but in a way that isn’t workable?
You know, I think there’s actually more serial character development for Hartnell’s companions than there is for some later ones. Albeit, we’re still talking fairly minimally relative to modern storytelling. It’s not something that struck me as a real difficulty or a thing that had to be ‘figured out’, though. The key is that the voices and personalities of those characters are strong in their televised adventures.
Even if we never focus on their ‘interiority’ and their journey. So whilst I was pinning the plot on the characters in a way that the show didn’t, I still knew who they were and how they would feel and react in that situation from their on-screen portraits. (And of course, in the years since the expanded media has delved much deeper, as in the Witch Hunters which I mentioned before.)
Speaking of going back to the beginning… it should be asked: what was your first Doctor Who memory?
The One With the Maggots! I think there must be about two generations of people for whom it’s The One With the Maggots. In 1994, I watched a rerun of the Green Death on Sunday mornings. I would have been six at the time! I was extremely excited to watch it again on DVD, more than a decade later… Only to find I didn’t enjoy it that much! A few months later, I saw Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. on a teeny tiny black and white portable TV whilst on a caravan holiday.
It was on the same TV and in the same caravan that I saw the TV Movie in 1996 – the first episode I saw on original transmission. For all of that, though, the first Doctor that felt like my Doctor was Peter Davison. Thanks, I think, to a copy of the 1982 Doctor Who annual. Which also has a big picture of Tom on the front, but clearly I was won over by Peter’s pleasant open face.
Another Short Trip In Space-Time
Moving onto The Threshold, again it’s very much focused on character… and kept rather tight in setting, taking place in the Master’s TARDIS as it’s getting time-rammed. What drew you to that idea? Of putting the Delgado Master in that one place & handling his relationship with the Third Doctor?
That was an idea that’d been living in my head since at least The Sound of Drums, if not before. Every Master after Delgado has lived beyond their time and done terrible, desperate things to survive. The suave, commanding Delgado doesn’t carry that weight. But he must know it’s coming, one day. I wanted to see the day he confronted his mortality. When the brief for a Master bottle episode came through it was a no-brainer to pitch.
The story also gets into the fears of that Master incarnation and potential futures… is that something you see as a key component of that incarnation? (You know, kinda like Dhawan Master has his fears of identity & Simm Master has his fear of the constant nagging of the drumbeat…)
In a sense it’s the one thing that isn’t, rather it’s the absence of a sense of mortality that defines him – he’s defined by his swagger. By a sense that he’s playing games, that the stakes for him are just potential boredom and embarrassment. But one day he is going to run out of rope, and we know what happens then (Deadly Assassin, Tremas, Cheetah People, Deathworm*, Chameleon Arch, and on it goes). Somewhere between Frontier and Assassin** came the day he looked his vulnerability in the eye for the first time. The lack of that awareness in his televised stories is what made it tantalising.
[*A. Ed’s Note: Deathworm referring to the Deathworm Morphant, a snake-like creature that the Gordon Tipple Master consumed to allow himself to survive extermination in some form.]
[**A. Ed’s Note: Frontier in Space and The Deadly Assassin.]
Into Short Trips Vol 12
Which brings us to the incoming Short Trips Vol 12 release and your story – The Galois Group. Of course, not too much can be said yet but might we be detecting a little bit of algebraic inspiration at hand, just from the title…?
Any similarity to mathematicians living or dead is purely coincidental…(Felicia follows this with a wink.)
That said, it’s not the first time the Eleventh Doctor has been connected to Galois. The story of Galois’ death in a duel is referenced in The Eleventh Hour. Only they got the name wrong and said it was Fermat!* Wouldn’t it be nice if someone went back and told his story properly?
[*A. Ed’s Note: Pierre de Fermat’s cause of death is actually unknown, but he died in January of 1665. Évariste Galois’ death after a duel came much later in May of 1832.]
Finally, what’s it been like writing for Valarie, as a character that has originated within the Eleventh Doctor audios as opposed to the TV show*?
It’s interesting, thinking about it, that I don’t think I registered it as much as you’d expect. I’d read her dialogue on the page, and heard it in my head. Even whilst I hadn’t yet heard Safiyya’s performance, I wasn’t overtly conscious that I was working from a voice constructed only from reading the scripts. I’m excited to hear the final product – the different format should bring a whole new aspect to the character!
[*A. Ed’s Note: Prior to Short Trips Vol 12 – the character of Valarie debuted in The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles 3: Geronimo in October of 2022. Short Trips Vol 12‘s The Galois Group will be the character’s second boxset appearance.]
Quite insightful! And it’ll be a curious thing to hear what lies in wait with that Short Trips Vol 12 story. Very curious. It seems that Short Trips Vol 12 will be a varied but thoroughly delightful compendium of short stories.
Doctor Who: Short Trips – Volume 12 is out now and available to buy from Big Finish here. It costs £14.99 as a digital download. (As is typical for the Short Trips range, this release is only available as a digital download.)
With thanks to Angus Dunican & Felicia Barker for giving their time for these interviews. (Both Short Trips Vol 12 interviews have been lightly edited for typographical corrections.)