Exclusive Interview: Big Finish Writer & Producer, Ian Atkins

Ian Atkins has the enviable job of being both a writer and producer at Big Finish.

He’s in charge of the download-only Short Trips and The Companion Chronicles ranges, both of which tell the story from the companions’ perspectives. We’re very excited about both June’s Second Doctor: Volume One boxset (for which Ian’s also written The Story of Extinction) and upcoming Short Trips like The Curse of the Fugue.

Ian (pictured above with Stephen Critchlow, the voice of the Subscriber Short Trips) spoke to the Doctor Who Companion about his ambitions for the series, bringing Sheridan Smith back into the fold, and writing for the Second Doctor.

DWC: How did you come to work for Big Finish as a producer and writer?

Ian Atkins: I hadn’t intended to work for Big Finish at all. I’d met Paul Spragg when I worked at Visual Imagination in 1999, and ever since we’d been good friends, meeting up a couple of times a month at least to have drinks, or watch Doctor Who after we both left VI. I got married last year, and, had things gone differently, he’d have been my Best Man. In 2014, he asked me if I wanted to work two days a week in the Big Finish office with him (he was the Producers’ Assistant for the whole company), as things were getting very busy there for one person. So I did. I had a wonderful month working with an old mate, and then suddenly he’s gone. Paul’s shocking death left a hole which no one could fill. I stepped in as best I could, and suddenly this two-days-a-week part-time role had turned into a seven-days-a-week job, one I’d had no training or experience in. Eventually we got Sue Cowley on board, and then Joseph Smith, and things became sensible again. For a given value of “sensible”.

That was when we uncovered an issue with the Subscriber Short Trips range, where we were short by a number of stories which needed to be put together quickly. Nicholas Briggs and David Richardson offered me the chance to cover this by producing what was needed, and suddenly I was on the other side of the fence – no longer just putting scripts and contracts in the post, but seeking out writers, commissioning scripts, editing them, and booking studios. About this time, David Richardson asked me if I would be happy to cover production duties on the fourth story of the 2015 First Doctor Companion Chronicles set, which isn’t something you turn down! Funnily enough, writer Martin Day – who I’ve known since fandom days in the mid-1980s – had just been in touch, and I was able to get back to him and get a script in action, which ended up as The Sleeping Blood with Carole Ann Ford. David then asked me if I’d like to completely cover the next Companion Chronicle release, for the Second Doctor, which has been a real highlight so far.

First Doctor Volume 1 Big Finish

About this time I’d been commissioned by producer Michael Stevens to write two Short Trips for the Monthly Range, and I think my name was floating about when Michael had to bow out. My original background with Doctor Who writing was fan fiction prose, so I really embraced this. Big Finish boss Jason Haigh-Ellery approved extending for 18 months, which gave me a lot of flexibility in who we used, and which eras, and so I got to work.

How did you finally tempt Sheridan Smith back to Big Finish, and aside from her two Short Trips stories, might she be in any other ranges?

Sheridan was top of my “wanted” list when I sat down with Lisa Bowerman to see who we’d like to get. I love that era of Big Finish adventures. We didn’t know if she’d want to come back – she’s a mega-star OBE, after all, and we’re from her early days – but it was worth asking. And there was nothing about having to “tempt” about it – she was so, so up for it; the only difficulty ever was timing, and finding some availability. Her affection for Big Finish is so strong – she helped move Heaven and Earth to make it happen in the end. I’m still so very grateful to her and her agent. It may sound twee, but it always humbles me to work for Big Finish when I see how much people like working with us.

And to answer the second part of the question: we would definitely want to work with her again, and she with us, but it does boil down to time and availability. The beauty of the session for the two Short Trips was that it was going to be a short day, and she could then head off to theatre. Whereas something in the other ranges tends to be a longer day and more of them.

Both the Short Trips and Companion Chronicles series recreate classic eras expertly, but how do you get yourself in that mindset? Do you have to rewatch, say, a Second Doctor story, or do you find just writing for Jamie, Victoria, and co. takes you back automatically?

Companion Chronicles Second Doctor Patrick Troughton Volume 1

I do tend to go back to a favourite episode here or there, it depends. It’s a show I’ve been watching for over forty years, and re-watching (and re-watching!) for the last twenty or so, and I think I’ve got a pretty good sense now of the various eras. And as a fiction writer – both amateur and professional – I’ve had the voices in my head a lot.

But it’s always vital to refresh your memory. The older eras offer an interesting prism to view modern day concerns too – it’s not like they’re locked off when they finished. There are always new stories to tell. Which is hugely exciting.

When you became producer of both ranges, what were you hoping to achieve? Did you have any main objectives?

With the Short Trips range, I wanted to make it as varied as I could across a three year whole – to either revisit rarer Doctor/companion combinations, or to get people involved who hadn’t read as many stories as others. It was the same with the writers – I really wanted to work with some people who hadn’t written much for Big Finish, or who viewed prose as their primary medium. It’s a wonderfully intimate format – you are so easily in a character’s head. That’s the range’s strength. There’s no point in just trying to tell a cut-down full-cast Doctor Who story: we have other ranges that can do that better. But to be in a character’s head? That’s really our job!

With the Companion Chronicles, the Second Doctor release is a bit of an aberration, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary and get everyone involved, while also looking at one of the best companions of all time in Jamie. If we did more releases, I think those would be very different beasts.

Are there any plans for Doctors and companions to write or direct their own audio dramas, much like Nicola Bryant a few years ago?

Lisa Bowerman (director) with Peter Purves (Steven Taylor)
Lisa Bowerman (director) with Peter Purves (Steven Taylor)

There’s nothing specific. I’ve seen mentions that Colin Baker has a story he’d like to tell, and that would be interesting. I have spoken to Alex Macqueen and Geoffrey Beevers in studio, and both of them have ideas for Master stories – which is fascinating, really, that they think about the characters so deeply.

It hadn’t occurred to me until you asked this question, but I would love to get Louise Jameson to write, direct and read a Leela story. I like her writing, and it would be brilliant to get right inside the head of this Sevateem warrior who travelled to the stars. I know she’s done other Big Finish work, but the Short Trips is a great solo format… Who knows?

Is there a chance either the Short Trips or Companion Chronicles ranges will include characters from the 2005-13 Doctor Who?

Certainly the Short Trips run, to the end of 2017, is entirely Classic Era (with the majority of these recorded now). I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to be able to cover stories right up to the end of the Eleventh, but I don’t know where we stand license-wise for a start. Plus there’s the small issue that at present I’d need Jason, Nick and David to agree they want more Short Trips, and that’s not a conversation I’ve had yet: it is, after all, quite early days for the range – it’s only just over a year old – and as with any range, it needs to prove it deserves another run. I’m crossing my fingers though. Those who’ve listened to them have been very supportive. And with Companion Chronicles, I think if it happened I wouldn’t be on board, as it would be more something like The Churchill Years, etc., and we’re already doing those!

Are there any plans for physical copies of collected Short Trips titles, for those who don’t really like downloads? I’m thinking an entire run of eight stories packaged together?

No plans at all, I’m afraid. The range was always conceived as download only. We’d not get more than two stories on a disc, and so the releases will prove comparatively expensive as there are certain constant costs in production. The older Short Trips CD releases have much shorter stories to fit the format, and for me that really limits what you can do. With the downloads, they have a nice price-point that’s little more than a single cup of coffee, and I hope people will go for it if they’ve got a quiet evening coming up, or a long walk to and from the shops!

I’m very pleased to say that one of our contributors, Tony Jones has written an upcoming Short Trips title. Can you tell us anything about Rulebook? We’ve tried bribing Tony with jelly babies, but to no avail…

Left to right: Tony Jones, Nicola Bryant, and Dan Starkey
Left to right: Tony Jones, Nicola Bryant, and Dan Starkey

I really enjoyed working with Tony, and hope to do so again. He first wrote Helmstone for me, a Subscriber Short Trip we record in a couple of weeks (having already recorded his second story – funny how this all works out!). It’s a fantastic Steven Taylor story, and when he’d finished it, I couldn’t wait to ask him to pitch for the Monthly Short Trips as I knew he’d come up with something worth reading. And he did.

Rulebook is… Ah, but if he’s keeping quiet, I ought to respect that, shouldn’t I? But suffice to say, it’s a Peri story, and I think it’s a very, very witty and clever one. There’s a moment where Peri begins to wonder who she’s travelling with, which has proved to be one of my favourite bits across the whole range. Nicola Bryant plays it so, so well – she’s brilliant. That’s been the beauty of the range so far – lovely writing, performed by people really going for it. Who could ask for anything more?!

Huge thanks to Ian Atkins.

Head over to Big Finish now and check out the Short Trips and Companion Chronicles ranges: they’re certainly worth it!

  • Blushing at the mention. Thanks for this, Ian is fascinating to talk to