Fifteen Years Since 'Doctor Who - The Scarlet Empress.'

It's fifteen years since I finally finished and delivered my first Doctor Who novel to my editor, Steve Cole, at BBC Books. It had taken me a year to write, from commissioning in early 1997. It was a book that grew out of a year of turmoil. All that year - through a house move, change of city and start of a new job, and illness in three of the people closest to me - it felt like I was fending off adversity by submerging myself in magic and adventure.

Much of this book was written in cafe bars in Edinburgh in the summer of 1997. Jeremy had had a big operation and I'd go to visiting hours twice a day at the Victorian hospital and, in the two hour gap between opening hours I'd sit in a cafe scribbling in my Daler and Rowney sketchbooks. I ordered tall, foamy pitchers of iced coffee and sit under a metal table under sprays of exotic flowers. Here I could write to my heart's content and remain undisturbed. I sat very still in order to write a book that was in perpetual motion. It was a restless, gigantic, muddled-up odyssey.

'The Scarlet Empress' was one of those books I wrote as if it was going to be the last book ever. I poured everything into it: a childhood love of Marvel comics. Angela Carter's stories and fairy tales. The Arabian Nights and Hanna Barbera cartoons. Ray Harryhausen monster movies and Cilla Black LPs. Marlene Dietrich and Vladimir Propp. Mae West and Lewis Carroll. Looking back, i think I was assembling all my favourite things - the sounds, textures, colours - in order to fight off anxiety.

It was to be very much my take on Doctor Who. I wanted to write as if this was my one and only chance to write for the series. I wanted to say that Doctor Who had given me so much in my lifetime, and I wanted to give as much as I could back to it.

And I wanted to give him Iris Wildthyme, too. She was a character who would be a female counterpart to the Doctor. One who seemed to know more about his own past and future than he did, and one who had the tatty diaries to prove it. One who undercut his Time Lord bluster and called him 'sweetie.' A woman who dressed like a homeless drag queen and who travelled the cosmos in a miraculous double decker. She was mysterious, amoral, and possibly sinister. She was the Doctor's unwanted love interest - his Irene Adler, his Catwoman, his Mrs Slocombe. All rolled into one divine - and profane - package.

I also wanted to mess about with the shape of stories. Much is said about Doctor Who's endless flexibility, but mostly they are adventure stories. Even when they're not strictly linear, they are just shuffled about a bit. I think I wanted to think about other kinds of tales - musings, road movies, meanderings, picaresque twiddles, epic journeys, tales-within-tales, whispered legends, gossip, diary entries, interior monologues, doggerel,  pointless flashbacks... Or, at least, have the characters entertain these ideas.

It was never as simple as deciding to write a 'fantasy' adventure that was about 'magic' as opposed to a 'science fiction' story about 'science.' I can see why the book can seem like that at first sight. It was more about seeing what other genres and traditions I could draw upon. I was thinking about whimsy, surrealism, folk tales, as much as anything else. Above all - more than science fiction - Doctor Who seemed to me to be a compendium of fairy tales that just happened to have been told to us, so far, through the medium of late twentieth century science fiction. In another time and place it would have and was, in fact, quite different.

Sometimes the books you write are important to you because of the people you meet and the friends you make because of them. 'The Scarlet Empress' was the beginning of my great friendship with its editor, Steve Cole, who was magnificently encouraging all the way through the writing and publication. Once the book was out, I made a whole lot more friends as a result. Over the years since it's drawn all kinds of people into my life. I'm very grateful for that.

It's also had a fair amount of controversy around and about it, too. I think that's fair to say. I just wanted to do the thing in the way that seemed best to me. I'm glad i never had to do it anyone else's way, or had to fit in or copy anything and smooth it all down into something more conventional and well-behaved. I realise now how rare that chance actually is - in Doctor Who, in books, in anything at all.

(NB. The concept drawings of Hyspero i found online, and i know they're by students of June Hudson's, when she taught a course on design at the University of Redlands, in California, a number of years ago. If anyone can identify the artist, please let me know. The drawings of Iris and the Doctor are, of course, June's.)


  1. Ahh, I love The Scarlet Empress. Such a blast to read. One of my favourite Doctor Who novels, and one of the select Eighth Doctor Adventures that I've still held onto (along with Alien Bodies, Seeing I, Father Time, The City of the Dead and a few others).

  2. I adore this book. One of my very favourite novels in Doctor Who and in general.

  3. Thanks both, Caleb and Dan! Very kind of you both.

  4. This book, The Blue Angel, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Endgame by Terrence Dicks were my favorites among the novels with the 8th Doctor. I read them long before I finally got to see the film last year and you captured Paul McGann very well. He emerges as a complete character who is having his own distinct adventures and his own antagonists and left to his own devices solving fantastic problems. I like how in The Blue Angel it's hinted that this adventure might be a novel written by Sarah Jane Smith.

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  6. I started on the Eighth Doctor Adventures last year and this is definitely a stand-out story though I can see why some people might not get on with it. Great pictures as well.

    I won't claim to like everything you write but when you get it right it really works (for me). Looking forward to the The Lady of Mercia;-)

  7. First of all, I'd like to introduce myself: I'm 18 and I'm from Germany. I discovered Doctor Who 2 or 3 years ago, watched every single episode from the first Doctor in An Unearthly Child to the 13th Doctor and then moved on to the books and novelisations. I started with the new Doctors adventures (or is it Doctor's?) and - eventually - found out about the eighth Doctor's novels. That's when I stumbled over your book.
    You have to forgive me, I never felt like I had to write to the novelist personally, but after I finished and found myself crying, I simply had to.
    Your book is like Iris' and the Doctor's TARDIS patched together: Bigger on the inside. Of course, every book is like this, with whole years and lifetimes pressed together in hundreds of pages. But yours has managed to pack not only characters and a whole world inside the sheets of paper, but also a universe and characters, who are not only briefly introduced and then gone, but each one characterized, loved and then - suddenly - gone like the cyborg Duchess and the Spider. Yet only after you have gone to that adventure with the Doctor and you pause to reflect what exactly you have whitnessed you realise that this story has everything in it what makes you love Doctor Who. The story's round, somehow, it's near to life and just makes you feel like a fly, sitting on the red doubledecker bus that is smaller on the inside, whitnessing every single step and being reminded of what life's about.
    Sorry about being so philosophical, but this is the very first book that managed to appear like something you know and love and turns out to be much more, even in the Doctor Who universe. It's exceptional in every single way a book can be. The Scarlett Empress is not so much about the Doctor than about anything else: New worlds, everyone the Doctor meets and a Mock Turtle. I guess I just wanted to thank you for that book, so: Thank you.

  8. I can't remember how I discovered this blog entry, but I did and was interested enough to go out and find "The Scarlet Empress". I'd never read an Eighth Doctor adventure before. I absolutely loved it. (Spookily enough I switched jobs after reading it and "The Blue Angel" was there waiting for me on a shelf at my new job.) Thanks to your recommendations I've now bought some Angela Carter novels to read too - The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus.


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