I’ve heard from a few people who’ve been listening to the Big Finish adaptation of Cold Fusion who were surprised by the number of jokes. It’s ‘funnier than people remembered’.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, the Virgin books were never quite as grim as their reputation. 80% of the jokes in the radio version were in the book. Second, as I kind of implied there, when I adapted it, I did add a few more jokes, and cut out some of the lengthier and technobabblier speeches.
The third reason’s the most interesting. To me, anyway. I was never happy with Cold Fusion. It was the second novel I wrote, and I always had the sense it had got away from me, but I’d never been able to explain why. My first, Just War, was very taut, serious, fine-tuned. Cold Fusion was always a lot more ramshackle. As I’ve been saying for twenty years, the author wasn’t keen, but readers seemed to like it, and that’s the best way round, if that’s the choice.
I went into Cold Fusion thinking I was writing a book about the Yugoslavian war. If you’ve read the book, you’ve probably just gone ‘huh?’, because that never really came across, to put it mildly. The modern translation would be Syria – it’s a war where horrible things are happening, and clearly there’s a case for international intervention, but … well, there’s no clear good guys and bad guys. And that was the idea of the book: two Doctors show up and they look at a situation like Yugoslavia/Syria and they, completely independently, perfectly sensibly, pick a side to support. And they pick different sides, so spend the book fighting each other. And the book would be in the idiom of high space opera: Judge Dredd and other 2000AD strips, Star Wars, with the hint of the Federation from either Blakes 7 or Star Trek on the horizon. Hovertanks and laser beams, chirpy robots, and sinister guards pointing phasers at people demanding to see their identity discs.
Nowadays, I know how I’d do that: it’s notable that in the book, there are almost no civilians, no bystanders or people just trying to get on with their lives. And that’s what the ‘tragedy of Aleppo’ is – a modern city full of ordinary people suddenly caught in the crossfire. That’s where a story like the original one I had in mind has to be located, that’s who it’s about, not the generals and diplomats and warlords. So if I was starting from scratch, the fifth Doctor would do the normal Doctor Who things – meet the warlord and his cruel generals, decide to oppose him. The seventh would be down in the city, trying to mitigate the effects of military occupation, arrange the preservation and evacuation of what he can. And that’s kind of in the book, but it’s not properly articulated.
As I was adapting a book I’d written back in 1996, I found myself in a rather fitting battle with a version of me that was half my age. Sometimes I would think of a line, and then turn the page and younger me had already put it in the book. Other times, I did not understand the choices he made, at all.
The biggest change: this was written before I worked on Emmerdale, where I learned a lot about storytelling. Mainly that you start scenes as late as possible and end them as soon as possible. Never, ever have scenes of people just standing around, waiting for the story to happen. And the audio version has actors, and I always want to give actors something to do. Even in the audio version, I’m going to admit I think Whitfield and Adam are really underwritten parts, that starting from scratch, I’d give them both a huge amount more meat to work with. I did boost Patience’s role, because in the book she’s mostly unconscious or semi-conscious. Now, she’s much more Doctorish, a kind of Sue Perkins incarnation of the Doctor. (Which led to the new challenge because the story already had twice the average number of Doctors in it).
But as I picked it apart, I finally realised what younger me had done: every single time he had a choice, he went with the joke over the serious point, or added a Doctor Who easter egg moment (I was writing the first version of Ahistory at the time, too). And this cut against the ‘message’ I’d originally come up with.
Thing is … it was the right choice. The book should have been a space opera type thing with a sprinkling of real world resonance, not the other way around. But young me couldn’t quite let go of the ‘makes you fink, dunnit?’ book ‘about Yugoslavia’. So there’s some very weird tonal shifts, some very odd moments in the book, where the book I thought I was writing starts poking through.
I’ve smoothed things out a little for the audio. It’s more obviously a romp, with a backbeat of a planet under siege from both hostile aliens and the humans sent to protect the population from them. I think the audio version works a lot better than the book. I mean … I’ve been writing professionally for twenty years at this point, I’d hope that I’ve picked up a few tricks in that time. But it’s fun to watch the younger me just fearlessly leap at this insane idea for a story and almost make it work.
And, as it should be, it’s a great testament to the stewardship of editors Peter Darvill-Evans and Rebecca Levene that they could actively encourage a stable of absurdly young authors (I was 24 when I wrote it, and I wasn’t the youngest person to write one) to take Doctor Who and go mad with it. I love Doctor Who in all its many and various forms. I adore the current show. But the New Adventures … that’s a place to find your proper Doctor Who, isn’t it? That’s Doctor Who in its purest, wildest form.