I’m always a bit nervous about reading indie authors I meet (even if I am one) because you never know what you’re going to get. We all know the quality varies substantially. I know a lot of readers who refuse to read indie books at all. That’s a real pity, because while they might successfully avoid some of the dreck out there, they’ll also miss some damned good books.
Dr How, Mark Speed’s Dr Who parody easily comes under the latter category. Parody is tricky to get right, and far too often it just ends up being a hatchet job of the original. Not so here.
Speed pulls it off. The series is not only professionally and skillfully written, but was also an enormous pleasure to read. Dr How and The Illegal Aliens was one of the most London-y books I’ve ever read: imaginative and funny with some truly delicious puns. Speed writes with great skill, and the stories are more than capable of standing on their own feet.
These aren’t books only for Dr Who fans. Any reader with a taste for comedic writing and fun fantasy will enjoy them.
You really aren’t losing anything by giving it a go, and I recommend that you do. There’s nothing like finding an exciting new author.
I’ve asked Mark along to answer some of my questions about the series and his writing.
Your work is original and very funny, but parody is a particularly tricky genre to get right, what drew you to it?
Sci-fi has always been my favourite genre, and I was a teenager when Hitchhiker’s Guide came out and sent it all up. I loved Douglas Adams’ outlandish ideas. Writing the Doctor How series was my chance to have some real fun, without the strictures of ‘normal’ storytelling.
No one had done a Doctor Who parody before, and I didn’t want it to be along the somewhat disparaging lines of Bored of the Rings or Barry Trotter. I love Doctor Who and it’s part of the tapestry of my life, and some of my earliest memories are cowering behind the sofa on Saturday evenings as a child.
Whilst an author is protected under the law governing satire, I wanted to do something more creative than to just mimic. So I decided that I would create an alternative universe, starting with the assumption that the BBC had been given the wrong story back in 1963. That allowed me to do a few things. First of all, it pays homage to Doctor Who as a work of fiction. It keeps it intact as a set of stories within its own space, but at the same time provides an alternative viewpoint. At the same time, it provides a rational explanation for all the horrendous timeline conflicts that exist in the Whoniverse. If you go to Reddit you’ll find fans doing their nuts trying to keep track of the mess that 50+ years of different script editors have made. It was the chance to start with a clean slate, and I’m sure the writers on Doctor Who would sometimes kill for that. In The Day of the Doctor, they even had to find a way of undoing the horrendous acts he committed during the Time War. If you start from the premise of ‘What if the BBC had the wrong story?’ it leads you down some interesting paths. Why was the term ‘Time Lords’, rather than ‘Time Keepers’ chosen, for example?
Some extraordinary things happen later in the series that you simply couldn’t do in Doctor Who. Without wanting to ruin it for readers, I cross some major boundaries.
The story is very, very British, as is the humour. I grew up in South Africa, and if it weren’t for living in London for ten years I think some of it might have confused me (the rhyming slang being an obvious example). I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed Kevin’s character as much. The UK isn’t a small market for ebooks, but it pales in comparison to the US, how have you found your writing is received in other countries?
Doctor Who himself is very British – he’s the ultimate Great British Eccentric – an archetype recognised the world over. One of the UK’s biggest exports is our famous sense of humour, and our language has come to be the world’s lingua franca. Our unique humour has been exported too via the likes of Monty Python, Are You Being Served? and Little Britain, amongst many others. Harry Potter has also done an enormous amount for popularising British fictional characters and accents amongst an audience that includes Who fans.
The US market is about five times the size of the UK, but they have always supported a much stronger sci-fi market because they’re a more forward-looking society and don’t have that British Literary Establishment baggage which frowns upon anything enjoyably readable. Sci-fi in the UK has only recently begun to be taken seriously. The term Whovian was coined in the US for fans of Doctor Who – and it’s in the US that the conventions began.
Fans of the Doctor How series in the US have written to tell me that they’ve recommended it to other Doctor Who fans, and passed the paperbacks around, but fans in the UK have said they’ve met a lot of resistance. I’m not sure whether it’s because we see Doctor Who as an almost inviolable cultural hero here. I did worry about a backlash by hardcore fans, but everyone seems to have taken it in the way I intended: it’s a homage, and a different perspective on a hero I grew up with.
If the series were to be adapted for TV, which actor would you imagine being cast as Dr How? (Oddly, when I thought this I imagined Peter Capaldi. Possibly because he’s not as boisterous as Who’s earlier incarnations. He might make a better How than Who)
This is the weird thing. I started planning this series in early 2012. I began writing it in 2013 and finished writing book one about a month after Capaldi was announced as the new Doctor. I published Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens in March 2014. It really freaked a lot of my friends out that I had – to a certain extent – nailed Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor in terms of his dress and personality. So I think you’re right – Capaldi would make a better How than a Who!
I do a little acting, improvising and comedy (I’ve taken a one-hour solo comedy show to the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of times). A great many of my friends remarked how similar How is to my own personality, so I wouldn’t mind a crack at it myself. An odd fact worth mentioning is that Peter Capaldi, Stephen Moffatt and I were all born within a few miles and a few years of each other in Glasgow, and in the same maternity hospital. Maybe there was something in the water at that time?
There’s an enormous amount of natural humour in your books, and you clearly have a great deal of fun playing with words. Do you think you’d be able to write a strictly ‘serious’ book, or would you struggle to stop the humour seeping in?
I had counselling recently about some really serious stuff. My poor therapist found it hard to do her job at some points because I kept cracking her up. It’s how I’ve always dealt with problems.
A few years ago I did get about 30,000 words into a very ‘serious’ literary work, which I would like to come back to and complete. It deals with some truly horrific issues, but still in the background there are some humorous notes playing if you listen for them. I found it almost impossible to turn off the humour completely. If you read the memoirs by Brian Keenan and John McCarthy of their five-year kidnapping ordeals (most of which they spent blindfolded and chained up, and were regularly beaten) you can see that they found humour even in those dark hours.
I think humour was designed to keep us sane. If you’re going to have an intelligent creature that can plan for the future and understand its own fate, it needs a coping mechanism.
Where do you see the Dr How series going? Do you have a specific arc in mind for the character?
I’m in the process of finishing book three of five. I planned the character arcs back in 2012 and have been refining them as I plan each book in more detail.
Doctor How and Kevin both have definite arcs. Kevin is human, and is changed because that’s the essence of humanity. There’s a limit to how much you can change a Time Keeper, but regeneration allows for some radical changes. I should note that it’s a key feature of the series that we meet one more of Doctor How’s cousins in each of the novels.