Exclusive Interview: The Black Archive’s Philip Purser-Hallard, Kate Orman, and Jon Arnold

Obverse Books is on a mission: The Black Archive range critically analyses Doctor Who serials between 1963 and the present day.

Edited by Philip Purser-Hallard, the series, as of May 2017, consists of 11 titles: Rose; The Massacre; The Ambassadors of Death; Dark Water/ Death in Heaven; Image of the Fendahl; Ghost Light; The Mind Robber; Black Orchid; The God Complex; Scream of the Shalka; and Evil of the Daleks. But its schedule stretches out long into the future.

To find out more, the DWC caught up with Phil, Jon Arnold (so far the only person to have written two instalments: Rose and Scream of the Shalka), and Kate Orman, author of The Black Archive #12: Pyramids of Mars, released in July 2017.

DWC: Presuming you were each approached to pitch whichever story you wanted, how did you pick? Did you go for a personal favourite; or one which you knew had plenty to examine; or did you want to pick a tale which you knew would challenge you?

Phil: When I was first proposing the idea of the Black Archive, some of the people I was talking to were dubious about whether it was possible to find a book’s worth of material in a single story. I tried to demonstrate it by coming up with a chapter outline based on the then most recent story to have been broadcast, Dark Water/ Death in Heaven. That grew into the book we eventually published as The Black Archive #4.

I probably couldn’t have done this for any story, admittedly. It helped greatly that Dark Water/ Death in Heaven addressed some particular interests of mine – technological afterlives, gender-switching, some aspects of cyberpunk – that I was confident I could write about at length. Together with the complexities of the story’s place in the wider narrative of Doctor Who, and its tacit placement as a Halloween/ Remembrance Day special, this provided enough material for what turned out to be one of our longer books.

Jon: When Phil was initially putting the range together my first thoughts were to pitch for favourites – I did mull over City of Death and a couple of Sylvester McCoy era stories. Ultimately, while I was looking about, I read a piece on Rose which, while a decent piece of critical analysis, absolutely neglected the cultural context. That ended up making me think that Rose is the most successful Doctor Who story in the show’s history – not necessarily in terms of the story itself but in what it actually achieved. Not only did it get the show a huge audience and introduce it to a generation who’d perhaps only know it as a relic; it reformatted the show almost completely in under 45 minutes. I thought that was fertile territory for a critical study. What was it about Russell T Davies’s version that made it connect with a modern audience? How did they turn it into ‘watercooler TV’? Plus, I knew there was a wealth of material I could draw on – it’s probably the most documented story in Doctor Who’s history. And there was a small personal connection: when the show came back, the first two seasons were filmed a five-minute walk from my front door and a couple of walks home from work took me past Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper rehearsing.

With [Jon’s second Archive] Scream of the Shalka, it was almost an inversion of that. It’s one of the very few Who stories that’s critically under-examined and that’s something that’s been a minor irritation to me. After I’d finished Rose, it occurred to me that I could apply a similar critical framework to a less successful revival of the show and perhaps analyse why it didn’t succeed where Rose did.

Kate: I wrote an essay for Doctor Who and Race (edited by Lindy Orthia, Intellect Books, 2013) on The Talons of Weng-Chiang. I’ve never studied history, so everything I had to research was, to me, new and startling – the Opium Wars, for example; I had no idea that Britain had literally fought China for the right to sell it opium! I knew at once that if I could write about The Pyramids of Mars, it would give me to chance to further chip away at my historical ignorance; so the moment the chance to write about it appeared, I jumped at it.

Have you ever considered pitching for a story you don’t really like, hoping that you’d uncover something that would make you re-evaluate it? Or do you think that would have too negative an impact on the monograph?

Kate: I’ve never really understood what all the fuss is about when it comes to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but there was still a great deal to say about it, even just focussing on the racial aspects; so loving a story to pieces isn’t a necessary criterion for discussing it. Timelash is much despised, but someone interested in H.G. Wells could probably get a detailed and fascinating essay out of it.

Phil: That’s an interesting idea, but speaking for myself I’d find it difficult to sustain the necessary enthusiasm at the length of a book unless the story was one I really appreciated. We’re very happy, though, to publish books on stories which are, by consensus, less well-liked, providing an author has a lot to say about them and can say it in an interesting, engaging way. Next year’s book on The Twin Dilemma should be a fun example of that.

Jon: With the caveat that I find something to like about just about every Doctor Who story, I’d absolutely love to write a title like that; there’s a lot of critical meat in looking at things that don’t quite work for you and why they don’t – for that reason one of the upcoming titles I’m really keen to read is The Twin Dilemma. It’s a story which objectively has plenty wrong with it but for a lot of interesting reasons. My tendency when watching, reading or listening to something is to find something to like rather than a reason not to watch, so on a personal level I’d like to see how that could apply to a Black Archive, but that’d have to be allied to finding other aspects to talk about too. Equally though, it’s interesting to look at why more well-regarded stories are often just as flawed as less loved ones.

Jon, you’ve actually had experience with this, writing for Hating to Love: Re-Evaluating the 52 Worst Doctor Who Stories of All Time. How did you find it?

Jon: I must admit I cheated slightly with Hating to Love and managed to choose stories which I find a lot to enjoy in, even if they’re flawed – I deliberately dodged the likes of The Monster of Peladon and Underworld. So there it was mainly a case of pointing out aspects of those stories that I enjoyed and developing an argument around there. The really fun essay for that book for me on The Deadly Assassin. We were including a story from each season and season 14 doesn’t have anything regarded as an outright clunker (except to Jan Vincent Rudzki) so I thought it would be interesting to invert the book’s intention and why it perhaps was bad for the show in the long run.

I’m interested to hear how you each approached planning and drafting your pieces, in particular dealing with the pressures of what needed to be included. After all, you’ve each chosen stories that strike quite a resonance with readers.

Kate: Phil and I exchanged bullet point lists of possible areas to cover in the Pyramids essay – he had loads of ideas I hadn’t thought of, such as the history of “life on Mars” stories in science fiction.

Pyramids of Mars is a fan favourite, so Kate, did you have a checklist of things you think fandom would’ve liked you to cover? Or because a great deal has been written about it, did you prefer to walk the road less travelled? Did that encourage you to find more about the story left previously uncovered?

Kate: I think the strength of the Black Archive books is that they’re not the more usual analysis of how the stories were made and how fandom received them; rather, they talk about what is in the stories themselves. In the case of Pyramids, that’s a mixture of real Egyptology and Britain’s colonial relationship with Egypt, especially how that relationship has played out in fiction, from Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars to the Hammer mummy movies. I’m a lay Egyptologist (my apologies to any actual Egyptologists who read the book – I’ve done my best!), so that part was fairly straightforward; in fact, Pyramids is one reason for my lifelong interest in Ancient Egypt. The rest was my personal interest in plugging the gaps in my understanding of history and literature and how Pyramids is the product of both. I hope I’ve managed to make it as interesting to read about as it was for me to find out about it.

Phil, Dark Water/ Death in Heaven was not only the most recent series finale back when The Black Archive launched, but also a serial which deals with a lot of controversial issues – namely, notions of the afterlife, 3W, Cyber-Brig, and Missy. Did you feel you had to defend it at all, or do the facts speak for themselves?

Phil: Well, maybe this is an example of what we were talking about above, because personally I love that story, and genuinely find it odd that anyone wouldn’t. It’s clever, complex and thematically rich, with Steven Moffat’s usual writing pyrotechnics and some killer performances, from Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez in particular, and… no, it just wouldn’t occur to me that it needed defending.

If you’re asking, though… I think the concept of a technological afterlife is clearly distinct from, and has no implications for, the existence of a supernatural one, meaning that it should be relatively inoffensive to both atheists and believers. I agree the suggestion (made by characters as part of a sales pitch, but never directly confirmed in the narrative) that the dead continue to experience what happens to their corpses is genuinely horrific, but it’s hardly uniquely so in the history of Doctor Who. I think the scene with The Cyberman Formerly Known As Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart is a brief cameo which treads the usual Doctor Who tightrope between the moving and the absurd with reasonable deftness. And I think anyone who had issues with a regular character changing gender clearly needed their minds opening anyway. So, I would defend it on all those counts, but I didn’t feel the need to in the book.

Jon, there was a huge amount of pressure on you, writing about a story that brought a new generation of fans into the show, and the first Black Archive to be released. Did you have to ignore that pressure? Or were you unaware that it would be the debut title?

Jon: I knew it was going to be in the first batch but not that it’d be the first in the range. When writing, I blithely assumed that the initial batch would be in chronological order of transmission so in that sense I didn’t feel the weight of having to get it right or I’d doom the range. Obverse Books’s approach of launching with four titles helped tremendously in that way. There was more pressure in the quality of the other writers really. If anything, the pressure was even more intense with Shalka given the writers of the next couple of titles [including Simon Guerrier’s Evil of the Daleks, Kate’s Pyramids of Mars, and Phil’s Human Nature/ The Family of Blood, co-written with Naomi Jacobs].

With Rose, that pressure about bringing a whole new audience to the show was a fundamental part of my choice of story – one of the things I’m fascinated by is the gap between critical acclaim and popular success and how rarely that’s married. Things like Mrs Brown’s Boys (not my thing at all admittedly) or, as Peter Davison’s autobiography recounts, All Creatures Great and Small tend to be sniffed at or ignored in favour of the likes of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead which have vastly smaller (but more passionate) audiences in this country. Something that manages both ratings and critical success is a rarity and even cursory research into contemporary sources will tell you that absolutely nobody saw the level of Doctor Who’s 2005 success coming. Part of what I wanted to capture was how damn exciting it was seeing a huge Doctor Who billboard on the concourse of Victoria station or seeing the ratings and having people who’d never had an interest frantically googling when they were supposed to be working to try and find out what was going to happen next week.

One thing that strikes me about the range so far is the different approaches each author has taken. Did you get to read each other’s work while writing your own, and if so, did that change your plan?

Phil: As the editor, I’ve obviously had the opportunity to read all the books, but Dark Water/ Death in Heaven was written simultaneously with our other launch titles – Jon’s Rose, Jim Cooray Smith’s The Massacre, and LM Myles’s The Ambassadors of Death. I think across all four of them, we were working out some of the parameters of what the Black Archive would be, including which aspects would become standard and which would be at the author’s discretion.

Since then, we’ve had the advantage of being able to point to existing books and say ‘This is the sort of thing we want,’ including making comments on how we might tweak them to be slightly different in hindsight. For instance, it’s clear to me now that my book goes a bit overboard on describing the overall Doctor Who context for Dark Water/ Death in Heaven, and I’ve tried to tone that down in subsequent volumes. Similarly, I love Liz’s book on Ambassadors, but it’s chattier and more bloggish in tone than has become our standard since.

Kate: I read Simon Bucher-Jones’ Image of the Fendahl and Jonathan Dennis’ Ghost Light, which were not only well worth reading in their own right, but helpful in, I hope, getting the tone right, striking a balance between academic – lots of research and detail – and conversational; not formal, dry, or obscure.

Jon: The other titles in the range were still being written while I was working on Rose so in that sense it was written in isolation. That said, towards the end of the editing process, I did read an early draft of Phil’s book so there was a certain amount of cross-fertilisation there. I think the early titles in any range tend to define what the range can do so to a certain extent; after I’d submitted the chapter titles, it felt like making it up as I went along.

On the other hand, by the time I came to write Shalka I’d read all the other Black Archives so that’s certainly more influenced by the approaches others too – mine included. Stylistically, The Massacre was a good guide in the kind of material that could be covered in appendices and Ghost Light’s approach to footnoting but there are little points of analysis I’ve drawn from virtually all the titles.

I’m presuming the drafting process required many rewatches, so did your serials stand up to that level of examination over and over again, or did you get a little fed up with them?

Phil: Not with Dark Water/ Death in Heaven, no. In fact, I’ve been doing a comprehensive rewatch of 21st Century Doctor Who to fill the gap between the 2015 and 2017 series, and when it came round, it was as entertaining as ever. I even noticed a couple of new things this time round, or at least things I don’t remember noticing before.

Kate: I grew up on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s continual, dependable repeats of the Tom Baker stories, so rewatching Pyramids is as natural and obvious as, say, eating the same delicious breakfast many times!

Jon: The thing I really became aware with when rewatching Rose is how cleverly balanced the script is. It doesn’t make the TV Movie’s error of trying to be Who 101 and whacking you over the head with the show’s history. Instead, it’s a 21st Century popular drama which occasionally breaks out into a Doctor Who story, something of a stealth bomb that lures you in by pretending to be one thing and only shows what it really is when it’s too late for you to avert your gaze. On that level, I was still impressed by the fact its tricks work even when you know what it’s doing. It’s something you could put out today and it would still work with minor rewrites. Of course, you can see where there’s the odd creative choice that doesn’t work and that was learned from but to me that’s interesting in noticing how the series develops.

I think with Shalka, if anything, I ended up being more impressed with it than I was at the time. Once you look into them working in essentially a new medium with technological restraints that weren’t there even a couple of years later and, in true Who fashion, a minuscule budget it was astounding that they’d achieved what they did.

So how did Scream of the Shalka develop? I wasn’t expecting to see it in the Archive, but I’m glad it is. Did it evolve from Rose, or was it one of your original pitches?

Jon: Shalka wasn’t one of my initial pitches, but it was something I’d had at the back of my mind to write about for a while. It evolved from a conversation I’d had with Phil on a mailing list a few years earlier – one of the discussions involved Shalka and how there was a real lack of critical material on it. There’s Paul Cornell’s essay in the back of the novelisation, the DVD commentary, Phil Sandifer’s covered it, a couple of magazine articles, and there are a few reviews around but unusually for Doctor Who there was a comparative lack of in-depth coverage. So to me it was a story with potential for a lot of interesting discussions where, with other stories, it’s a lot tougher to find fresh critical angles.

Where Rose played an important part was in providing me with a structure for the book: as pitched, I envisaged it as something of a companion volume, where the approaches of the BBCi and BBC Wales teams could be compared and contrasted.

The unexpected development was in the final appendix. I realised relatively early on that the ‘road not taken’ would be an interesting area which was barely covered elsewhere. Early research told me that Simon Clark would have written the second story and James Goss mentioned on the DVD commentary that there were originally four stories in contention and with the very kind help of those two fine gentlemen and Jonathan Clements, it developed into something quite special that I don’t think had been publicly documented in detail before. Which is fairly rare in Doctor Who scholarship and something I’m delighted we could do with the range. [You can read more about this later this week exclusively on the DWC.]

Phil, as editor of the range, how did you approach the first year of The Black Archive, and how are you dealing with the increased output when it goes monthly? Do you have to balance out writing styles and which Doctors’ eras are covered?

Phil: For the first year, I mainly wanted to show that the series was viable, and the range of Doctor Who stories we could cover. We had to rejig our schedule a couple of times because of various people’s health issues, so the first year’s line-up wasn’t precisely the one I’d envisaged, but it still achieved what we set out to do.

We don’t, in general, aim for exact parity between Doctors and eras – it was my expectation from the outset that some periods would turn out to be more critically interesting than others. Still, that first year looked at eight different Doctors and all the decades of regular broadcast, and by the end of 2017 we’ll have covered all except the Eighth and War Doctors. Those first two years have also included less obvious stories like Black Orchid and Scream of the Shalka alongside the predictable heavy-hitters like Ghost Light and The Massacre, which helps show how widely applicable our approach is.

Thankfully, from January 2018, Jim Cooray Smith, who wrote our book on The Massacre and is now working on The Ultimate Foe, is collaborating with me as joint range editor, so the doubling of our output isn’t going to involve a massive hike in my workload – I doubt we could have managed it if so. Still, this has the pleasing side-effect that I get to read books on stories like Carnival of Monsters and Marco Polo without putting in all the preliminary work; it puts me more in the position of one of our readers, for half the books of the year at least. I must say I’m rather excited about that.

With a few upcoming titles including The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit by Simon Bucher-Jones, The Curse of Fenric by Una McCormack, and The Dæmons by Matt Barber, the DWC is excited by the range’s future too!

Huge thanks to Phil, Jon, and Kate.

Check out the complete Black Archive series so far from Obverse Books.