Doctor Who author Oli Smith – a Scyfi Love interview

FROM Sarah-Jane to John to Mickey to Matt – the name Smith has long held a special place in the Whoniverse, and now Doctor Who author Oli Smith is also making his mark.

Oli’s BBC audio story The Runaway Train will be given away free with the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, and it is performed by the Eleventh Doctor himself, much to the 23-year-old writer’s delight.

He said: “It was a fantastic honour for me to have the current Doctor on my story. I met Matt just after he had recorded it. He is so enthusiastic and passionate about everything he does, even things like my audiobook.

“As well as being a fantastic Doctor, Matt is a really nice guy as well, which is always great.  I knew he or Karen may be involved when I was pitching the idea, and it brought an extra special quality to it.”

With Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor already earning pretty much universal praise, Oli is intrigued to hear the final version of The Runaway Train.

Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the Doctor and Amy Pond have to retrieve an alien artefact with help from a Wild West posse.

“Doctor Who hasn’t been in a western setting too much, so I decided to write my own,” said Oli. “The first scene is my homage to Sergio Leone and his film Once Upon a Time In The West and it went from there. There’s a lot of action and adventure, with a pretty sweet twist at the end. I hope people enjoy it.”

The Runaway Train is Oli’s latest contribution to the Who canon, starting with the short story Blue Moon on the Doctor Who website and then another short,  Total Eclipse of the Heart for the 2010 storybook. As well as his audio work, he has written several comic strips for Doctor Who Adventures magazine, has a Doctor Who novel, Nuclear Time, out this summer and a Who children’s book in the autumn.

To reach this point has taken five years of ‘luck and hard work’ as Oli puts it, starting with producing his own comic books and travelling to conventions to sell them.

It was at one of those that he met Clayton Hickman and Adrian Salmon from Doctor Who Magazine, with initial conversations developing into friendship and eventually the pitch for the Storybook.

Despite his success, Oli says you are only as good as your last pitch, with each story requiring a lot of effort to complete.

“No-one says to you ‘write what you want and send it when you’re ready’,” he said. “Most of the time there is a short window for the work and if your pitch is accepted it still has to go up and down the chain of command to make sure everyone is happy with it.

“For me I have some ideas cooking around and then try to work them into a good story, before throwing the Doctor in and seeing what happens. Sometimes that may be one scene or rough story or even just a great moment. A lot of times you rewrite and rewrite and you have to be prepared to rip up your favourite bit if need be and start again.

“For instance, with the novel there were nearly 12 drafts of the synopsis.”

He added that every writer also has times when the ideas refuse to flow and Oli says he was gratified to see former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies say the same in his book, The Writer’s Tale.

“He was very honest and talked about struggling with ideas which was reassuring to know every writer goes through that,” said Oli. “I’ve had days where I’ve worked until 4am writing and others where I feel like I’ve used up every idea I’ve ever had or ever will and my girlfriend wonders if I have a proper job!

“Those are the times to work over ideas at the back of your mind, ready to go again. It all means it is very satisfiying when everything comes together.”

As well as nailing the story, Oli said it is just as important to hit the right tone depending on the medium you are writing in, and added: “Doctor Who can go anywhere at anytime, but at the same time you can’t have a story where the Doctor stays in someone’s kitchen for a chat – there are beats you have to hit.

“For comics that means the stories are wham-bam, whereas novels have more space to explore the emotional side of things and audio books have simpler structures, as people often listen to them while doing other things.”

Another element to consider is the Doctor himself. Oli has written for the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor and has a clear approach for both.

He said: “Someone said you tend to write the Doctor as yourself, for instance Russell T Davies’s Doctor was full of heart, whereas Steven’s is more mysterious and mythological.

“For me, my Tenth Doctor was like a version of me on a really good day, where I remember all the witty comebacks at all the right moments. The Eleventh Doctor is played very differently by Matt, he’ll mumble and his character gets things wrong, which makes him more vulnerable and less human. I like my Doctor to umm and err about things.”

Matt Smith and David Tennant, in a picture from Doctor Who The Writer's Tale The Final Chapter

Matt Smith and David Tennant, in a picture from Doctor Who The Writer's Tale The Final Chapter

He added: “A line from The Beast Below summed up those differences for me, when the Doctor says no-one human has anything to say to him. From Tennant’s Doctor you could imagine that being very authoritarian and judgemental, whereas Matt sounds like his heart is breaking, that he can’t believe it has come to this. That’s the difference.”

As you’d expect, Oli is a keen Doctor Who viewer and has been very impressed with Steven Moffat’s handling of Who so far. Would he like to write for the show?

“Oh, that is an ambition, yes, but I have a way to go yet before they let me have a go at that,” he said. “It is a complex programme and Steven Moffat handles that so cleverly, with an abundance of ideas and subplots in each episode that really flesh out the world.

“That gives any writer an inspiring jumping off point, but they like you to have done other things in television before taking on Who. ”

So does Oli have any advice for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps?

“That’s a difficult question to answer because it implies there is a magical formula to follow which guarantees success – I don’t think there is,” he said. “When I chatted to my writer friends I always asked them how they made it and their stories were always different.

“I knew I wanted to be a writer but had no real idea of how to make that happen and was convinced I was going to have to sign on to the dole. All that time though I was writing and sending out probably an idea a day to somebody or other to try and get noticed, as well as writing my own comics – putting in the groundwork if you like which is very important.

“Then the BBC website story paid me enough money to keep going for a couple of months. It gave me a taste of what it could be like and the enthusiasm to keep writing, to keep sending off ideas and introducing myself to people.

“I always said I would never call myself a writer unless I made enough from it to pay the bills and in the five years I have been doing it, it has only been in the last year or so that that has happened.

“It’s happened thanks to alot of hard work and a degree of luck, and I would be the first to say that there’s a long way to go yet.

“That is one of the most exciting and challenging things for any writer though – moving on to the next idea, the next story.”

Just like a certain Gallifreyan time traveller in fact.

You can visit Oli Smith’s website by clicking here or follow him on Twitter here.

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