Hi Philip. What is the most difficult part of doing the monthly Action Figure Theatre stories?
I think the hardest part is getting it shot and ‘in the can’. Coming up with storylines is easy, working them into scripts is a little harder. The editing can be time consuming but isn’t difficult. Yes, it’s definitely the filming. And that includes coming up with the sets and the custom figures for supporting cast. Getting the right supporting characters has often been a stumbling block to getting a story shot. At the moment I’m being a bit lazy and you’re seeing lots of Primeval figures with headswaps. But hey, I don’t have time at the moment to do loads of customs that will appear once and if it ensures that a story doesn’t get held up, so be it.
What was it like working for Big Finish and do you plan to work with them again?
It was amazing to work for Big Finish and feel like part of the family. It’s a really great working atmosphere, everyone is so lovely and of course it’s mind blowing to put words in the mouths of people you grew up watching on TV, especially when they turn out to be so nice. Nicola Bryant in particular was a real delight. So down to earth and friendly. As for working for them again, I would love to but the right project hasn’t come up yet. Plus I’m busy writing other things at the moment and I think they’re commissioned right up to 2014 so it’ll be a while before my first full length Big Finish. One day, hopefully.
Which Doctor do you prefer to write for?
That’s hard one to answer. I kind of dip in and out of my favourite eras. Having a companion figure helps to evoke a whole era so it’s no surprise that I lean towards 6th Doctor/ Peri stories. If they make an Ace figure, the 7th Doctor will be back with a vengeance. I love Hartnell too, he represents a less complicated time, where stories were about exciting exploration and not bogged down in continuity. McGann is also a favourite of mine because he represents a relatively untapped era where I can do virtually what I want.
By contrast, I don’t really have a least favourite but I do find it hard to come up with stories to suit the fourth Doctor! I did a mini series for him a couple of years ago just to force myself to give him some stories!
How did the Action Figure Theatre begin?
I guess it started as videos. I used to make these toy video adventures using the Dapol figures, including a custom McGann. But when Dapol stopped making them, I made my own versions of all the Doctors. Suddenly with 8 (at the time) Doctors I simply didn’t have time to make videos for them all so I came up with the idea of doing comic strips instead. I was fascinated by the internet which was only just taking off at the time so came up with the idea of putting the strips out on the net. But I’d been writing Doctor Who stories since my early teens and it was always just an extension of that.
Was writing for Doctor Who in audio different from writing the scripts for AFT?
Yes, completely different. Writing for every medium needs a different approach whether it’s audio, comic, theatre, film or TV. I’m no comic expert, but I know enough to know comics are a very visual medium, you’re telling the story with pictures. It sounds obvious but there are no pictures for audio. The fun is how to get a situation or setting across with just dialogue and sound effects and without a single character stating the obvious!
Another difference was that it was going to be performed by real actors, not by toys using speech bubbles. Most AFT stories tend to be driven by plot rather than character. Even photoshopping their expressions, there’s only so much emotion you can get from a plastic figure.
Where they are similar however is in economy. For the audio I had a clear 25 minutes- a finite number of words to tell the story. Ten years of writing AFT comics has taught me how to edit and keep a story into a framework. I don’t spend half as much time on an AFT script as I would for a professional project but I still try to edit and produce the best story posible. Even at the final stages, I’m tweaking lines to find the best words.
You have had an extensive and prosperous career as an actor, what do you feel the main difference is between acting and writing? Also would you like for instance Mark Gatiss call yourself an actor/writer?
That’s a lovely way of putting it thanks. I wish I’d had a tenth of Mark Gatiss’ career. But yes, I do consider myself an actor/writer, exactly that. It’s on my business card. It’s how I introduce myself. I love doing both and don’t see why they should be seperate. Thankfully there are a lot of people in the business these days like Mark or Ruth Jones who have made a success at doing both so it’s become acceptable.
Obviously writing and acting are completely different disciplines and have their own skills and challenges attached but it’s all about being creative and needing to put across ideas and stories and to make people feel something.
Will you ever return to making Doctor Who videos or do you feel you have out grown the medium?
I never say never but I doubt I’ll ever do videos again. It’s just too much effort and I simply don’t have time- or the software- anymore.
Would you write if asked for the TV series? Or do you think your style is more suited to the classic Doctors rather than Matt Smith’s regeneration?
I would bite Moffat’s writing hand off to write for the series! Whatever writing style I may have I would bend it to fit. Definitely. It’s a fair comment though to think that I might be better suited to classic Doctors. The AFT does concentrate far more on the older ones. For one thing, there’s more of them. But I do find them more exciting to write for.
What is your favourite AFT story thus far?
Without a doubt, Play Time. It was an 8th Doctor story I did last year about a little Victorian girl, a complete spoiled brat with magical powers. I wanted to do something quite gothic and macarbre with the 8th Doctor and that story I think, really nailed it far more than any other. There are a few images in it that still give me the creeps.
I do love the big ‘event’ stories too. The five part one-ep-a-day adventures like the 10th Doctor’s finale Godmaker and the 4th Doctor Christmas special ‘White Christmas’. The 50th Anniversary story will probably be like that. Yes, I’m already thinking that far ahead.
You have done AFT stories not just for Doctor Who but for other series, will you continue with any of them or just focus on Doctor Who?
Doctor Who has always been the main thing for me but you’re right there are plenty of other things on the site and it’d be great to give them a boost. It all comes back to toys really for inspiration.
When the Indiana Jones toys came out I wrote a big story for him but that’s still on the shelf. I’m always on the look out for a new Star Wars idea. I’d love to do a Star Trek AFT and I’ve got my eye very much on Hasbro to see what they come up with next year.
I’m getting quite into Judge Dredd too but again it’s about toys. The movie is coming up so fingers crossed there’ll be a couple of decent figures. But you tell me. What else do you want in AFT form?
Well personally, I’d like to see some more Torchwood strips. Can you tell us anything of what you have got planned for the next year or so of AFT?
Torchwood would be good. I did come up with a TW story where the team find a rogue Sea Devil in Cardiff. But before I could do it they killed off Tosh and Owen and the whole Torchwood set up changed. It’d be brilliant to do the Institute in a different era, something I only touched on with my one Torchwood ep.
As far as what’s coming up on the AFT, Classic Who is currently in the middle of a massive arc which is set to continue until next May. But don’t worry, it’s made up of individual stories so readers can dip in and out and still understand it. I can’t say any more about it at the moment other than it involves six Doctors (not together) and should be epic. As I mentioned, I’ve also got half an eye on the big anniversary and I’ve come up with a new way of getting all eleven Doctors in the same story.
Recently AFT celebrated it’s 10th anniversary. How do you feel about AFT? Do you feel differently to how you felt when you created it?
It certainly did. Oh my goodness, how time has flown! I do still love it. I get a real buzz when I create a striking image, come up with a very Doctor-y line or think up a surprising resolution to a story. It’s a great feeling when people email you and say “wow, I loved that story, the ending was so unexpected!”. Like when the Trods first appeared on the site. The whole first part was geared to make you think the Daleks were fighting the Cybermen then the last frame shows these funny homemade robots. That got so many great comments. Another wonderful compliment is when people can ‘hear’ a Doctor’s voice. A lot of that comes from the superb likeness of the CO figures but a well chosen line can make help to evoke a particular Doctor’s way of speaking.
What impact do you think AFT has had on the Doctor Who online community?
I don’t know if it’s that widely read to have any major impact but I’d like to think that it does entertain and inspire those that have come across it. I’ve got friends in the online community who tell me they were inspired by my customs all those years ago but the stuff they’ve gone on to produce is far far better than anything I ever could which has in turn inspired me to try harder.
And there are others that have made some brilliant comics like Aaron Vanderkley’s Adventures In Time And Space or Ghostlord89 on Outpost Who. I’d like to see more people do comics and do them seriously. A lot of the ones I see online tend to be cartoons, spoofs and funnies which is fine- I used to love Twisted Mego Theatre- but I think sometimes it takes more courage and imagination to try to tell a ‘serious’ adventure through this admittedly ludicrous medium.
What do you think AFT’s legacy is? Has it changed the Doctor Who online worlds attitude to story telling?
If there is a legacy, it’s probably through the downloadable sets. I hadn’t really thought much of them to begin with, they were just settings I’d made for stories that I figured, ‘I might as well make them accessible to others’. It’s really taken off though and almost every online toy video seems to have my sets in the background. That’s amazing and makes me very proud. I wish I could do all the sets that I get asked for but I simply don’t have the time.
In terms of the whole online community, when I started it was quite an original thing. Dr Who Online at the time said something like “it’s odd way of story telling but it works”. Looking around the net there are lots of people using toys to tell stories from the large number of videos on youtube to things like the Rykrof Enloe Star Wars photonovels on Yakface.com.
As far as Doctor Who’s concerned I think that’s a combination of a brilliant range of toys that have teased out the big kid in us older fans plus a swathe of new young fans who have access to video cameras, action figures, heaps of imagination and for whom putting them together is a no-brainer.
I’d love to say that the AFT blazed a trail but I just don’t think it’s that widely known about.
What other projects are you doing at the moment aside from the monthly AFT stories?
You may wonder if I have time for anything else but I’ve just been filming an online comedy series playing an old witch. Writing wise, I’ve pitched a few things for radio that I’m waiting to hear back about. One of which is an ongoing sci fi series so that’ll be really exciting if it goes ahead.
Do you think AFT will ever end or do you see it going on for the forseeable future?
There have been a few times where I’ve thought of stopping but I know that if I did, CO will bring out that Ace figure or some random monster and I’ll be inspired to make another load of stories with no platform for them. There have also been times where I’ve been too busy to do any stories so the site has taken a short break but to be honest, it’s been going so long it’s found a way to fit in among everything else I do. So while I still love doing it, people still enjoy reading it and while there are toys that inspire me (and that may not always be Doctor Who) then I reckon the AFT will always continue in some way.
Thanks for talking to us Philip, it’s been great.
The pleasure was all mine.