Interview with Tom Spilsbury (Editor of Doctor Who Magazine)

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Hello Tom, thank you for agreeing to the interview. Doctor Who Magazine has been going since 1979 and has always been popular. What do you think is the secret to its success?

Well, I think it’s because a number of loyal readers keep buying it, the TV show is popular and the magazine can’t survive without the TV show.  Also, because of the cleverness of Gary Russell, Alan Barnes, Gary Gilliat and Clayton Hickman who kept the magazine going while the show was off air and that inventiveness enabled it to keep going. It has done better than any other TV based magazine and I think that is because it has always been very funny and very inventive. Also, we have tried to always please the hard core fan base as well as doing something new because a lot of things have been done one way or another; so we try to find a new angle when we write about things.

I agree with you that it is always good when the magazine does something different that hasn’t been done before.

Yeah, it is, but it is also not always possible to do that because not everyone has been reading the magazine from the start; for some people it is their very first issue and we don’t want to give them something that is so bizarre that only people who have been reading it for 30 years will understand it. However, we also have to respect those long term readers who have been reading it so long and want something new. Basically, we want to do something that is going to appeal to everyone.

Well, you do need to sell the magazine.

Yes, we need to make a profit and therefore have to sell a set number of issues to do this. However, although we have a budget for the magazine it doesn’t mean we have to account for every last penny so if we want something particular we will spend it: for instance, a certain photo or an extra page for the comic strip. At the end of the day though, we can never forget that all this costs money from the budget.

You became editor in 2007 when the new Doctor Who was becoming more and more popular. Has your approach to editing the magazine changed since you became editor?

Yeah well, I was Clayton Hickman’s assistant editor for five or about five and half years before that so I already knew how the editing worked but I don’t think that behind the scenes changes much rather like the television programme. They make a new batch of episodes each year and there are changes from one episode to the next because of the guest actors but really a set report is the same from one episode to the next. However, there is always  something for the fans to react to because of the different interviews and reviews and most of the time they will like it. Most fans enjoy all the episodes.

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What was the reaction at the DWM office in 2003 when it was announced that Doctor Who was coming back for a proper series?

Well I can tell you how we heard about that. The press announcement was in September 2003 and we heard about ten days before that so we asked Russell whom we knew quite well, I mean we weren’t best friends or anything but we knew each other from various things. We got wind of it when Clayton phoned Russell and he asked him whether it was true or not he said that it was fact. We just wanted to know because there have always been rumours flying around and lots of false starts with things like “The Dark Dimension” back in 1993. It was very exciting as well because we knew it was going to happen and people were very confident that it would. I think that a lot of fans did. What did you think of it?

Well I hadn’t really been introduced to the show at that time because I had missed the whole thing about the 90s, so when it came back it was more of a new introduction for me as such. I found it interesting when I read about the false rumour in 1990 when they thought Steven Spielberg was doing a movie.

Well they were proper rumours because nothing was written down but I’m sure Spielberg showed interest. It was like “The Dark Dimension” where they had the ideas and such but it didn’t come together… well of course the obvious answer was that it was very exciting and a great time to be involved with the magazine.

Apart from editing the magazine you have conducted a number of interviews and written several articles.  Is your style of editing different at all from your style of interviewing and writing articles?

Well yes, I think the editing is easier, I find the writing more difficult than the editing. Say when I’m looking at Ben Cook’s writing, I enjoy the editing, hopefully there isn’t much to do because he’s a very good writer himself but sometimes you change things round and see what fits best. I write an editorial issue which (laugh) I find hard to do sometimes. I think I’ve done a few interviews as well and the ratings which is about it really. I try to keep the ratings to a page because not everyone is interested in them. I like to do them myself because they are important and I don’t trust anyone else with them (laugh). They can sometimes be quite complex and it can be hard to make head or tail of what the facts mean. I like to have the more jokey articles at the back like “The Watcher’s column” which is a bit of fun. I think there needs to be a balance. I hope that is a good answer to your question?

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Oh yes, I think it is a very good answer. How does the Doctor Who Magazine team work with The Doctor Who Adventures team? Do they collaborate or is it more separate because it has different looks at the TV series?

Not really, though I know the editor, Natalie and the previous editor Murray but we don’t really work together as they are aimed at different audiences. I did email Natalie recently about the cover of the Christmas special and what photo she would be using for the cover which you may have seen on the magazine.

Oh yes, I have.

She emailed me back and asked if we would be using the picture of The Doctor and Clara climbing up the ladder and I said “no”. We did that really because we didn’t want the covers to clash (laugh).  Fundamentally, we have a very different product.

Well yeah, they are very different in their look at the series.

I would say they were as they are aimed at different ages; Doctor Who Magazine is aimed at older readers than DWA. I’m guessing but I think the average reader of DWA is about eight and so they don’t do jokes that would be inappropriate. I think that it is good fun and at about the age of eleven, they start to grow out of it and look for something that might be a bit more mature.

Funnily enough, I interviewed Simon Guerrier a bit ago and he talked about the comic strip with the robot and the boy who tries to get jobs for old Doctor Who monsters. (The strip is called  AAAGH!. Written by Simon and drawn by Brian Williamson, AAAGH! was created by Paul Lang.) He told me about how the Doctor Who Adventures office worked.

I think DWA is much harder to do than DWM because it is produced once a week so they have a tighter schedule and have certain jobs to be done by Monday and something else has to be done on Tuesday and they really can’t get behind with it.  They always have to keep ahead whilst looking for new and inventive things to come up with.

In recent years DWM has joined social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. How do you think that it has impacted on the magazine?

Well, positively because it is a big platform to promote the website or magazine.  Everyone does that and I think every big organisation will have a Twitter account and people can follow anything, like Dominos Pizza so they can get any offers which are going. Also, if magazines don’t start their own Twitter or Facebook then somebody else will start it and the magazine will lose control of what is officially being said.  It’s also important to make sure that it is the official Doctor Who Magazine Twitter account which is sending out messages.  It’s easy to update them, I do that.   There are also fan run pages, like Doctor Who Online (Online Doctor Who forum) and Blogtor Who (Doctor Who Blog); of course, they are doing it for the fun of doing it and they have their own websites which are very good too. They can report whatever they want and whenever they want and they can post rumours and such like which we can’t really do.  I enjoy posting my own thoughts on my Twitter account; it’s good fun (laugh).

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DWM added a page, which I quite like, called Outside the TARDIS which dealt with other sc-fi TV series such as Wizards vs Aliens and Red Dwarf. What was the reaction to this? Positive or Negative?

Well, for the most part you don’t get a reaction one way or the other. You have to remember we get 25 to 30,000 readers and for the most part you don’t hear a thing. But I like it (the page) and some people liked it and other people didn’t like it, overall it was about 50/50. We got eight letters about it. When you buy a magazine you don’t read every single word, you read the bits that interest you; about 10 percent that doesn’t interest you – for instance, some readers might not like the book reviews, but I hope that people enjoy the other 90 percent. I won’t do it every issue and of course it has to be to do with Doctor Who and something that will interest the reader, for instance: a lot of readers are interested in “Red Dwarf” and “I’m a Celebrity” because of Colin’s (Baker, Sixth Doctor) involvement. I wouldn’t do something like “New Tricks” for instance, unless Matt Smith was in it and then it would have something interesting about it for the readers which we could cover.

The comic strip is an important part of Doctor Who Magazine It’s been a part of DWM from the beginning. Why do you think it is such an important part of the magazine?

Well, I suppose it is a tradition and you know, lots of people have grown up with it and people love the comic strip. It is something that lots of people enjoy. I think if we were starting Doctor Who Magazine now, aimed at teenagers and adults then we wouldn’t have the comic strip.  However, at the same time, it is great to have the opportunity to do our own stories that are different from the TV show because everything else we do is a reaction to the TV show, it might be another interview, feature or a review but we are still responding to the TV show itself. It’s the one opportunity to have our own stories and it’s brilliant. I know it is one of Russell T. Davies’s favourite parts of the magazine and he always emails us about it and says how much he enjoys it. He commented on the Christmas one (The 2012 Christmas strip) the one off one with young Amy, Amelia, Rory and Mel and said “that’s brilliant, I don’t know how you do it, you sometimes give the character’s a better send-off then on television”. It’s nice to know that.  We’ve got the 50th anniversary year coming up and we have a big story lined up, Big Finish and AudioGo have stuff lined up so it’s lovely to be part of that. I know that not everyone likes that and flips past those pages but I still think it is a very important part of the magazine and it would be very unfortunate if someone decided to get rid of it.

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You were just talking about the 50th anniversary, this may be a bit hard for you to say but can you say at all what you might be doing?

Well, of course, there is going to be a big special and that’s a year away so of course they haven’t made it yet but we are going to cover it.  We will be on set doing set reports when they are making it and hopefully give the best coverage we can. What we want to do around the year is cover every era of Doctor Who with every Doctor in some way or other (laugh) just as many as is possible which will be difficult because that is what we do anyway! We always cover every period of Doctor Who as a show and product. There are so many exciting things which will get announced bit by bit I’m sure and we want to do the best coverage of it we can.  Of course, there is Mark Gattiss’s drama which starts shooting early in the New Year which will basically be a big thing for us so we can cover that and find out who will be playing the big names like Verity Lambert (Doctor Who’s first producer) and the Doctor, William Hartnell (The First Doctor) and it will be fantastic for those who grew up in the early days of the show and should be great. We know that a lot of other magazines like SFX will also be covering it and we are all trying to do it separately. As for specific things, well I can tell you one thing that is coming up; we are going to be publishing a previously unpublished interview with Jon Pertwee (The Third Doctor) which was done about a year before he died. A couple of journalists interviewed Jon for a local newspaper and they printed a very small amount of it. He talks a lot about his life, which in the 50th anniversary is nice because nobody really expects anything new from Jon Pertwee and it’s something we can do which you won’t get anywhere else.

I think one of the main stables of Doctor Who Magazine, particularly in the 90s, when the show was not on air, was finding material that had not been seen before.

Yeah, it is exciting; for instance when they found all the telesnaps and they printed those in the 90s. We are always trying to find stuff which is missing from the archives which kept it going all that time and it is great to find out new things about the past when many thought the show was passed it.  Doctor Who has more of a mystery with it because its past isn’t all there, it’s  not like Star Trek were you can watch every single episode because there are episodes of Doctor Who that aren’t there or only bits of them and people build this mystery around the  history (laugh).

What do you think the future, after the 50th anniversary, holds for Doctor Who Magazine? Do you think it is a bright future?

Well yeah, we can’t entirely know what the future will bring and there is no reason why it should stop now, as long as people care for it and read it and it is done well then I’m sure it will continue. It has been proved that it doesn’t need the programme itself. I hope there is a bright future and I’m sure at some point Matt Smith will depart and there will be a 12th Doctor and a 13th.   I’m sure it will carry on; I know they stopped it back then but I think people are more long sighted now. I hope that Doctor Who Magazine will carry on alongside the show forever.

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This is more of a personal question, it has been a long tradition that the TV companion appears in the comic strip, will Jenna Louise Coleman’s character, Clara appear in the comic strip or would that interrupt the series arc?

I’m not sure, not straight away because as you have seen the Christmas special, which I wouldn’t have been able to tell you about until Christmas Day, that she doesn’t go with The Doctor straight away, it’s a bit more complicated than that. As she hasn’t joined The Doctor just yet, we will have a storyline which starts in January and goes on for several months and what we will do after that is still in the ideas stage. It might involve Clara’s character, it might not. It depends what happens on television. We have had a few of the scripts sent through for next year and I hope people like it because it is very good.

From what I have gathered from people I know, people are enjoying this new renewal even after the upset of Karen Gillian and Arthur Darvill leaving.

Yeah, there is always new blood and it regenerates itself by having new Doctors and new companions. It’s a moving thing, it’s always changing. So it’s always good to have that feeling of the start of a new era and particularly at Christmas, it feels like the start of a new era. There is always a new character coming in and so it feels fresh again.

Do you think the magazine has to renew itself in the same way the TV series does?

Well what we do is change things but Doctor Who is always central. We freshen it up a bit like adding a new regular column and such like but it is still recognisably the same magazine, so we don’t change everything and you always want it as a jumping on point. I think it is a good way to keep it going. So we want to change things but also keep them the same because we don’t want to change the formula too much.

It is a bit of a Doctor Whoy paradox then?

Yeah, exactly.

Well I think I have done all the questions, if that’s okay with you?

Yeah that’s fine.

Thanks for talking Tom it has been a pleasure.

Same here.

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4 responses to “Interview with Tom Spilsbury (Editor of Doctor Who Magazine)

  1. Although not an avid Dr Who fan there’s been enough of it in this house for me to get the passion for it! This set of interviews even got me reading! Very interesting to understand what work is involved behind the scenes we watch! Well done.

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