Exclusive Interview: Jonathan Morris, Author of Plague City

Jonathan Morris is steeped in the ancillary worlds of Doctor Who spin-off media. He’s penned novels, audio adventures, short stories and audio books; each expanding the horizons of your favourite Doctor(s) in thought-provoking, exciting, and amusing ways.

So who better to work alongside Cavan Scott and Mike Tucker to bring the current TARDIS team to the BBC Books range? The catch? The books would have to be written as the show was, in the words of the Eleventh Doctor ‘still cooking’. The fact that The Shining Man, Diamond Days, and Morris own Plague City, not only capture the then burgeoning dynamic but are also rollicking adventures is something of a marvel.

Plague City sees the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole arrive in Edinburgh in 1645, the city is in the grip of the worst plague in its history.

The year is 1645, and Edinburgh is in the grip of the worst plague in its history. Nobody knows who will succumb next – no one except the Night Doctor, a masked figure that stalks the streets, seeking out those who will not live to see another day.

However, death isn’t as permanent as it used to be, as the Doctor discovers that the recently bereaved are being haunted by their lost loved ones – by ghost who don’t know that they are dead. Then there are other creatures, lurking in the shadows, slithering though the streets, looking to satiate an insatiable hunger…

Sounds good, right? Well, you can read our opinion of Plague City here and fortunately for us, Morris kindly sat down for a chat about Plague City, the difficulties of writing for nascent characters, and dabbling with authentic regional accents.

DWC: While it’s not exactly Trainspotting, were you ever worried about readers being confused by the regional accents?

It was tricky trying to gauge how strong the accents should be written. My main worry was that I would write a tin-eared English version of Scots, getting it all wrong, which would mortally offend all my Scottish readers. It’s an odd thing that Doctor Who doesn’t really do regional dialogue – it has characters with regional accents but somehow the TARDIS translates their actual words and sentence construction into standard English! But that wouldn’t work in a book, where the words have to create the sense of a character’s voice and accent. Of course, it’s not really authentic as seventeenth-century Scots, which would be completely unintelligible to an English reader, so it’s a half-way house of a half-way house.

DWC: In Plague City, there’s a clear divide between what the Doctor will and will not do when it comes to interfering with established historical events, and how the Doctor appears to have hard and fast rules that he breaks regularly, how far could you push the ethical and moral issues with the new companion knowing that death would be a topic for discussion in Thin Ice?

I was quite careful to make sure the story fitted in with Thin Ice; that it followed on from what Bill had learned in that story without repeating any of it (or pre-empting any of it, as the book came out first!). I’m not sure what the actual rule of changing history is, but it is interesting in The Fires of Pompeii the Doctor can save one family, so whatever the rule is, it’s not hard-and-fast, it’s a guideline. The ethical dilemma just comes down to thinking if you found yourself in a place where people are suffering from a disease which could be cured with a course of antibiotics – how could you stand by and not help them? It’s one thing to talk the talk about the high-minded theory, it’s quite another when someone is suffering in front of you.

DWC: The novel captures the current TARDIS crew perfectly. How difficult was it to nail the characters of Bill and Nardole given that the three novels were being worked on concurrently with the show?

I’m glad you think I got them right! Watching the episodes now, there are a few things I would change; maybe not their actual lines, but maybe I’d tweak some of the adverbs. But that’s a tiny thing. With Nardole, it wasn’t too hard, as he’d been in two television episodes, but with Bill all I had to go on was the short introductory clip – which, if you go back and watch it now, doesn’t seem to be quite the same

Bill that’s in the current series, because the character has developed in the writing and the performance. So I wasn’t really thinking of Bill in terms of Pearl Mackie, but in terms of the character in the scripts.

DWC: Edinburgh was devastated by the plague. The Black Death wiped out an alleged 3,000 citizens, with victims succumbing to the virus with 3 to 4 days of contracting it. It was brutal, with victims (and their unaffected loved ones) even being bricked up in their houses and left to die. While we tend to focus on the impact it had upon London, what was it about the setting that drew you to tell the tale of Plague City.

Well, when I was asked to do a Doctor Who book set in history, I had to cast around for exciting and dramatic periods of history that haven’t already been done. Most of them have already been done! I came up with about three or four different story ideas for different time periods and the range editor, Justin Richards, thought the idea of a story set in plague-ridden Edinburgh was the most promising.

But that was only a vague outline, so I spent a rather hurried couple of days researching the history of Edinburgh, its folk tales and ghost stories, to search for inspiration. I didn’t draw on any specific ghost stories, but there is a recurring motif of lost souls wandering the streets and visiting their loved ones which became an aspect of the book; trying to find a logical science-fiction rationale for sinister events.

But mainly the reason for choosing that period was because it was atmospheric, because it’s visceral, because it hasn’t been done, and because if you’re telling a story set in a period of history where the Doctor’s first instinct is to go ‘We should leave’ then immediately you’ve got a dramatic hook. What does the Doctor do when he lands in a period of history which is too grim for him?

 

DWC: The stand out character, The Night Doctor, is also one that’s ripped from the pages of history. What attracted you to these haunted, iconic figures? Was it the chance to put the Doctor in a city where his name, often synonymous with healing and comfort, meant certain death to the infected populous?

It would be nice if it was that clever, but actually I was quite reluctant to refer to the Night Doctor as the Night Doctor, but I couldn’t think of another name for it. The idea of visitations just before people die came from another ghost story, while the Plague Doctor figure with the raven mask is just a terrifying figure that hasn’t really been done in Doctor Who. And also what’s interesting is that Plague Doctors didn’t really cure anyone, whether people lived or died was pot luck, so in a sense they were just going through the motions. So to people at the time they didn’t signify healing or comfort, but the approach of death!

DWC: Do you think you could only tell this kind of tale with the harsher, less user-friendly Twelfth Doctor?

I don’t know. I don’t think so; I think the Twelfth Doctor is pretty close to the fourth Doctor when he’s in one of his grim moods – in The Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom and The Horror of Fang Rock. Those stories where the Doctor is so up against it he doesn’t have time to be sentimental or frivolous. So it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to make it work for the fourth, or any of the others. But it’s nice for the Twelfth Doctor to have a story set somewhere that matches his accent.

DWC: The most vivid descriptions are saved for the Psycholops and the Leeches; how did they come about?

They’re both inspired by the various weird creatures you get in the ocean, like lamprey eels, and extreme environments, creatures like Water Bears which look like a caterpillar wearing a hazmat suit. The Psycholops is a bit of a cross between a sea urchin and a brain coral and the inside of a bone (or, indeed, the inside of a Crunchie). I find that nature is far more ingenious and imaginative at creating weird life forms than my imagination, and it also helps create a strong, memorable image in the reader’s imagination if it is grounded in something familiar.

Thank you very much to Jonathan!

Doctor Who: Plague City is out now, with an RRP of £6.99.

  • Rick714

    There are so many promo shots used for lead ups to the new eps this year and a ton for the novels and they all have Bill in her swimsuit from the first couple episodes. You’d think they would have had at least one or two wardrobe changes for some of these purposes….