Thu
Apr 15 2010 6:12pm

Countdown to Doctor Who: The Paul Cornell Interview

DAYS TO DOCTOR WHO IN THE US: 2

Paul Cornell is One Of Us. There’s no question about it. Despite having written some of the most memorable episodes of Doctor Who (“Father’s Day”, “Human Nature/The Family of Blood”); created Bernice Summerfield, a hugely popular character in Whoverse novels and audio plays; and written other quality novels, short stories, and comics, it’s clear from Cornell’s interactions with fans on his blog, on Twitter, or at conventions that there is very little difference between him and us. Even to use the word “fans” seems strange, because he has a way of acting as though we are all compatriots in fandom. It just so happens that he has a much cooler job. Better still, Cornell always acts as a force encouraging new participants in his fandoms. For example, upon recently being named the Guest of Honor at the Olympus 2012 convention, said that he would be “making a pain of” himself with the committee trying to do things like convince them to have a cheap Young Adult rate, presumably to encourage new fans to join in! If they awarded Hugos for Making SFF Fans of All Stripes Feel Welcome, Paul Cornell would be a shoe-in.

As it stands, he’ll just have to be satisfied with nominations in only TWO categories at the 2010 Hugos: Best Novelette (for One of Our Bastards is Missing) and Best Graphic Story (for Captain Britain and MI13: Volume 3 - Vampire State).

Little Paul Cornell

So, how does a young sci-fi fan grow up to be a prominent writer in the genre? Apparently, nothing inspires ambition like an older brother’s sci-fi literature, a time traveler in a police box, and wanting to piss off a teacher. “I’ve wanted to win a Hugo Award ever since I was eight,” he giddily explains over the phone, “when I first saw the words ‘Hugo/Nebula Award Winner’ on the front of my brother’s old science fiction novels pulled out of a box in the attic. He was away in Australia at the time, and so I’d break open a box and find all these wonderful things. And they included complete runs of science-fiction magazines like Analog. I remember reading Our Friends From Frolix 8 way before I should have. There was also, of course, Doctor Who, which I was far too scared to watch, and watched my first episode—‘The Brain of Morbius, Part One’—as a kind of rite of passage. I actually said to my mum, ‘I think I’m old enough to watch Doctor Who now!’ And I was amazed at the end of four episodes when The Doctor won, because it didn’t seem likely at all. And it exorcised something in me. It took out some kind of fear that was sitting there in the cracks and made it something I could look at. So I started watching and reading as much Doctor Who as I could.

“My first exposure to Doctor Who actually was in the form of prose in a book called Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, a novelization of an earlier story. So, Doctor Who became my thing. I wrote a lot of fan-fiction and got some of it published virtually immediately in fanzines. And this had led from a sort of tremendous moment in my childhood where I’d just done the minimum in school essays, and I wrote a huge 10-page essay basically in a fit of rage just to piss off a teacher! I was just thinking that writing so much would actually get me expelled! And of course she loved it. So I guess she must have been a good teacher, Mrs. Skipper. She was actually quite pleased that I’d gone to town! And from then on, you couldn’t stop me. I was just writing and writing.

“Some of the characters in my school essays appeared in some of my Doctor Who fan-fiction, some of the characters and plots from my Doctor Who fan-fiction appeared in my Doctor Who novels, some of those appeared in my Doctor Who on television. So I’ve got a direct line leading from the first time I started writing as a tiny boy to getting on to television writing Doctor Who.”

Sounds pretty straightforward and easy, doesn’t it? But Cornell insists that it was the exact opposite. What’s more, “It never feels like you’re really getting there. It always feels like you’ve pushed the wardrobe just an inch that-a-way. [His recent successes] kind of all come together at once, which is terrifying because suddenly I feel like a juggler who’s been thrown all these precious things, and I have to keep juggling them. And if I drop one of them now it’s gonna be really difficult and bad. And I can’t juggle!”

Hugo Favorites

Obviously, his Hugo nominations are one of his big successes at the moment. He’s nominated for both his prose and his comics work, and knowing that he prefers prose of all the forms in which he works, I asked him if winning one or the other would make him happier. With a fan’s glee he exclaimed, “Winning either would make me ecstatic! I’m the greatest supporter and fan of those awards. My two Hugo nominee badges, to which I’m now proud I’ll be able to add another two, are actually my proudest possessions. They are The Things I Would Save in a Fire, which is good news actually, because it makes saving things from the fire really easy! They’re in a little box on my bedside table.

“I’m not going to pick one above the other! I don’t think I stand a chance in either category, because the competition is so fierce and wonderful. And if we get through the history of the Graphic Story category without Fables winning one, I will be furious! But my feelings toward Fables doesn’t mean it necessarily has to win this year! (Laughs) And to get one for prose just blew me away! It’s just the most incredible thing. The people in both categories are a tremendous cross-section of the great and the good, and I’m just proud to be in their company.”

Cornell has a clear favorite in the Best Graphic Story category other than his own. “Fables, Fables, Fables, Fables, and Fables. It’s so deserving. Obviously I’m a fan of Neil’s [Gaiman, whose Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is nominated in that category], but Neil’s got so many Hugos, I think he loses them down the back of the sofa. He trips over them, he’s got them in his fridge, he loses them...” In the Novelette category, “it’d be nice to see Charlie Stross win a Hugo [his story “Overtime”—found right here at Tor.com—is nominated for Best Novelette], because he’s never won the novel category, though he’s a frequent visitor to it.”

Finger on the Pulse

Because Hugo nominations aren’t nearly enough, 2010 also finds Paul Cornell listed as a creator of a television show for the first time in his career. He is one of three creators on Pulse, a story set in a hospital and starring Claire Foy (Little Dorrit), Greg Chillin (Being Human), and Stephen Campbell Moore (Ashes to Ashes). It comes to BBC3 in the UK as part of their June 2010 pilot season, which is an interesting model for seeing what works and doesn’t on television and choosing what shows will go on to have a full series. “BBC3 have done this once before,” Cornell explains. “They’ve done a ‘pilot season’ whereby they show a number of pilot episodes and see what the audience reaction is. Last time, Being Human was the show that the audience really reacted to. And it’s interesting to note that that reaction was in the form mainly of online response, of blogs, and forums...only one newspaper actually reviewed the show. But BBC3, being a channel that’s oriented towards the younger demographic amongst adults, really looks at online reaction.” A pilot episode of Pulse will be shown on BBC3 along with two other shows. They are all different genres and lengths, so it isn’t a competition. If one gets picked up to be a series based on audience reaction, another could be picked up as well. Still, audience reaction is more important in this model than it is in the States, making online marketing key.

Hint – that’s where you guys come in!

The story of Pulse, while it’s been summed up as a medical horror show, has no supernatural element. However, it does have a fascinating concept that is sure to make viewers ask themselves difficult questions. Cornell explains, “Terrifying secret happenings underneath the veneer of a modern British hospital. It’s all about the things that could happen, and the things that some people might want to see happen. One of the facts we keep quoting to each other is that medical science advances tremendously in situations where there’s terrible torture, where there’s institutionalized brutality. If we get records from those times, we see that medical science benefits hugely. So, what if there were people willing to go all the way in terms of medical research and benefit the whole of society at the expense of the few? That’s what’s underneath the show.

“It’s also that show you haven’t seen in a long time about young medical interns in their earliest years of being doctors, still learning. It’s about that, all that kind of young joy and energy encountering something dark and awful. There’s a vast horrible conspiracy underneath the surface here. And it manifests itself in things like...well, we have the bloodiest set-piece botched surgery scenes that I have ever seen in my life! Blood up the walls! We had to import blood specially!” And there’s that fan-like glee again!

Welcoming “Squee” to Doctor Who Fandom

And if there’s one thing Paul Cornell seems to love, it’s fan-like glee, particularly that of the women that seem to be adding themselves to the ranks of Whovians in droves. “To me, squee is the best thing. I mean, God, we’ve waited all our lives in Doctor Who for an audience that would just scream in delight at what we do rather than regarding the greatest height of [the show] as just hitting the bar marked That’s Alright. That Will Keep It Going Until Next Week. ‘Well done, you’ve succeeded in your mission to keep it going until next week,’ when actually The Beatles is what we’ve been after all this time!” We discussed the book, Chicks Dig Time Lords, and the fact that in the US, Who fandom is primarily female, while in the UK, it is and has historically been male-dominated. He confirmed this, joking that “I didn’t know what a girl looked like until I was twenty!” But when asked why, he had an interesting take:

“It’s an interesting dichotomy, isn’t it? I think by the time organized fandom arose in Britain it had stopped being a mainstream show and had become a very niche show. And in Britain anything that is niche will be a show for boys. In many ways women define civilization, and I think in British culture especially any show that appeals to women is by definition a mainstream show.

“In the States, I think maybe there’s just such a big mainstream audience, and so many different audiences, that actually you can have a really big niche, and that really big niche can include a lot of women. Or perhaps it’s just how female viewers came to it. I would say maybe older, but actually the experiences in [Chicks Dig Time Lords] say just as young as fans came to it in Britain. So, I think that’s a really interesting question, and it’s one that I hope we’ll spend the next decade or so exploring in books like that.”

Race in Doctor Who

Once we got on the topic of women in Doctor Who, I had to get into race as well, as Martha Jones is a hotly discussed companion primarily because she has to deal with both of those issues. I asked him about Martha’s treatment in his Who episodes “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood,” along with “The Shakespeare Code,” as many fans seem to believe that the issue of Martha’s race wasn’t handled as effectively as it could’ve been. Cornell responds, “[Race] used not to be mentioned [in Doctor Who] because those were the 70s, and now it’s not mentioned because we’re all meant to be above it, and somehow we have leaped over the decade where people actually dealt with it. If there ever was such a decade, I think that decade is missing from most people’s heads. I’m glad we dealt with it a bit in ‘Human Nature’. How much we were going to deal with it was very much a part of our discussions. But one line to do all of it is maybe the right choice, what we ended up with, because otherwise we approach horrifyingly grueling for Martha and anybody who empathizes with Martha. And we’ve got to show some light in the situation she’s in. And we absolutely don’t duck it. The line says ‘Here it is, sitting here, we recognize it.’

“And actually, it’s arguable, there are certain times when the racism that would’ve happened is kind of in-your-face, and there are times when it would’ve been more implicit than explicit. There are times in British history where what few black people there were would’ve been treated as an extraordinary thing, but thus relatively well. But 1914? A bit of both. It depends where you are, it depends what’s going on.

“This is a subject that really interests me. It’s the subject that a lot of SF and Fantasy actually is running in the other direction from and so I really want to go there and talk and talk and talk about it. I think Doctor Who can do that. I’m not sure if it has done yet.”

Issues of Difference

Getting the discussion out in the open is extremely important to Cornell, even—perhaps especially—when acknowledging our attitudes toward and knowledge of other races honestly. This came up in our discussion of his wonderful character, Faiza Hussein, from Captain Britain and MI13. She is a practicing female Muslim who wears a head scarf even as she wields Excalibur and treats the world of British superheroes as a “fandom.”

“I’m really proud of Faiza,” he says. “I hope other books continue to find a place to put her. I just really wanted there to be a modern Muslim superhero, especially a British one, who’s from Essex....and I didn’t want to do Captain Muslim. Her central character point is her fanboy-ness about British superheroes. And then it becomes her involvement with the Black Knight, carrying Excalibur, being a doctor... I wanted to do a religious person whose religion was not the point of the character.

“It happens ridiculously often. People ask why Marvel doesn’t have a Christian superhero...apart from Daredevil. Daredevil’s a Catholic. But these things don’t get referenced very often, because it’s superhero comics. You expect the central trait of the character to be the thing they wear as a big sign on their chest. And I just wanted to do a character that wasn’t like that, that incorporated a lot of modern-day stuff in there. Especially since this is a British book about magic, and Captain Britain previously had been quite whimsical and dealt with Britain in a very kind of Avengers-ish way, where it was all the stereotypes. And a good way to overturn that is by making it multicultural from the start and showing all sorts of the kinds of people who live here. And asserting that Blade is British! Which he is! Wesley Snipes didn’t really play up that aspect of him, but...”

Paul is passionate about paying issues of difference the respect they deserve by talking about them openly, even if it means acknowledging one’s limited experiences. “It’s bad that the only time we deal with issues of difference is as either a deliberate inclusion, or a controversy. It is deliberate, but at the same time, you could actually ask, if I didn’t include Faiza, and I’m doing a representative team of modern Britain, well where is she? And it’s the fact that actually not having these people is often a gaping absence.

“Which doesn’t speak to a ‘badness’ on the part of the person doing it. This isn’t wrong, this is...uninformed. This is often an oversight rather than what you might call ‘evil.’ It’s just because the person in question has thought of a modern situation, and hasn’t thought of all the people who are in it. And a lot of people live their lives like that, you know? I do. I mean, I have very few black friends...it’s just the way it is in modern society sometimes. I think, especially when you come from a background like that, you’ve got to make an effort to represent everybody out there in the world when you write.”

He made some really refreshing points about acknowledging our shortcomings in order to move forward, and it sort of reminded me of the song from the musical, Avenue Q, called Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. It’s a great song, and makes the excellent point that not mentioning our differences could be the very thing that keeps us from seeing what we have in common.

Cornell says, “It’s the thing I hear from white writers. They will mention their friends of other races, and usually it’s about three of them, as it is in my case. And I think that’s one of the many, many things we should all own up to! The more we talk about this, and the more we wander into the middle of the stupid stuff and say the stupid stuff out loud, the better things will be.

“I think saying the stupid stuff really helped with Faiza, because I found a bunch of Muslim ladies and asked them questions. You know, ‘What’s the headscarf called?’ I found myself asking ‘What would a Muslim vampire be scared of like Christian vampires are scared of crosses?’ And the lady thought about it for a while, and finally sent me an email saying ‘The call to prayer.’ And I thought that’s a really good answer! I never got to use it...but you’ve got to be willing to be stupid. You can’t go around claiming to be, or think of yourself as, or simply feeling terrified that you have to retain the pose of being somebody who is entirely knowledgeable about other cultures and is totally cool and laid back about it and who would never have a racist thought in their lives. It’s that posture that gets everyone in trouble.”

Is Paul Cornell Actually Captain Britain?

British works of art, this American has noticed, seem to announce their Britishness. When I mention that characters on American television shows don’t sit around saying things like “What an American thing we’re doing!” or “We’re being so American right now!” Cornell laughs, recognizing that British stuff seems to do that very thing all the time. Not that he minds. In fact, he’s rather proud that it does.

“For a start, my work is obsessed with the nation-state. I’m all about the nationality. The Hamilton stories [of which One of Our Bastards Is Missing is one] are all about Britishness as well. I find myself a little like Pete Wisdom, in that I’m very much pro-the future, whatever that is, and I’m not particularly keen on the past, except that I’m fascinated by it, I know a lot about it, and I keep getting dragged back to it.

“And I think that’s probably a very British place to be. We don’t have a mono-culture, we have lots and lots of little cultures, and there’s a continual debate over Britishness, and you’ll see people defining Britishness all over the place. But we also have a very self-mocking version of Britishness, and actually a self-destructive or self-defeating version of Britishness sometimes when that goes to far....so the matter of Britishness doesn’t feel like a taboo to talk about, and people talk about it all the time.

“On the other hand, our flag, that is a taboo. If you fly the Union Jack, or rather the Union flag, because the Union Jack is only called that when it’s on a boat, or a ship...if you fly the Union flag on a private estate, it kind of gives people a stereotype, a prejudice that you might be some kind of racist.”

I was surprised to hear this! Really?

“Really. We are afraid of our own flag. (Laughs) In a way which you guys certainly are not. And actually, an uninformed British person will see the American use of the flag and be a little scared of that! You guys have flags everywhere! We have very few flags, and they’re mostly ceremonial, and for a private individual to use the flag...it’s a little scary. It shouldn’t be. I’d really like to see more of it, because that would again be taking away a taboo and making people more comfortable with it. But there we are.

“But yeah, this is one of the obsessions of my work. It pops up in Doctor Who, it pops up in Captain Britain. I mean Captain Britain virtually all about it. The clue is in the title!”

Look! Up in the Sky!

Oh, and if the Hugos and the TV series weren’t enough. There’s also the matter of Superman.

That’s right, Paul Cornell is the new writer for Action Comics, and he’ll be taking over ongoing writing duties for the Man of Steel, starting with a 10-issue Lex Luthor-focused story arc at Issue #890. For Cornell’s compatriots in fandom, this is very exciting news, as lately he’s been relegated to limited series, but no one was as blown away as Cornell himself.

“[Superman is] absurd, he knows he’s a little funny. He is Clark Kent. Clark Kent is real. He was brought up to be Clark Kent. Clark Kent puts on a blue suit, is actually invulnerable, goes off and fights great big cosmic things, all the while thinking ‘Goodness, isn’t this ridiculous!’ I think Bruce Wayne is a construct of the Batman. I think Clark Kent is a real guy. And I don’t get to play with him for ten issues! I’ve got 10 issues of Lex Luthor then Superman comes in. I’m quite pleased about that, because I really like Lex Luthor. He’s fascinating. He’s the greatest embodiment of human achievement, except he’s full of human weakness and frailty as well. And he sees this guy, who has all these ridiculous advantages, and everybody loves him because he has superpowers, and he has this not-unreasonable human thought. What Captain America would think if Captain America had a selfish thought in his head, ‘Why don’t they love me as much when I’ve tried so hard and have had to work at this so hard.’ I think we’re taking him through this I’m having a hell of a time! It’s great.”

What pleases me most about Cornell writing Superman is that his writing is, and has always been, about character first, which makes his stories compelling, and frequently tear-worthy. “I think I have a certain awkwardness with [superpowers and explosions]. I think that’s good. That’s something I’m really pleased with, because it sort of says we’re doing the drama. We’re doing the people. You reckon I can make you cry with Superman? I think I probably can, ey? Well, Superman II makes me cry all the time!”

Spoken like a true fanboy! A fanboy with a really cool job. A fanboy who’s recently celebrated his eight-year wedding anniversary to a fabulous fangirl! A fanboy for whom current successes are the beginning of even bigger and better things. A fanboy who is on the inside making sure the SFF community is a safe and welcoming place for the rest of us.


Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Fall 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

3 comments
Brit Mandelo
1. BritMandelo
This was super-cool. I especially enjoy the discussion of Faiza and the acknowledgment that sometimes we're going to be stupid and it's just part of life.

I really hope he wins a Hugo this year. *g*
Bridget McGovern
2. BMcGovern
Great interview--thanks to both of you! It's almost impossible *not* to root for at least one Cornell Hugo, at this point...

Can't wait to hear more about Pulse--it will be nice to have some middle ground between something strange and challenging like Lars von Trier's The Kingdom (chock-full of supernatural elements and supreme Scandinavian weirdness) and the usual ER or Grey's Anatomy-type medical drama we're used to in the States. I hope we get to see it (and soon)!
legionseagle
4. legionseagle
I think Cornell, in discussing the gender balance of fans in Britain, is glossing over the distinction between fans and fandom. Furthermore, there's something distastefully Victorian (shades of the "angel in the house") about claims that women "define civilisation". Though certainly Classic Who fandom obtained a reputation of being neither civilised nor welcoming to females.

Classic Who always had a significant female audience; it regularly took 25% plus of the total viewing public in its great days, and had a prime early evening Saturday night slot. My friends and I all watched it; we discussed it in the playground of our (all girls) school on Monday morning; Peter Davison, the fifth doctor, was seen as a major sex symbol (I can remember the howls of outrage fromt he fanboys that it was being "dumbed down for the girlies" that arose from his being appointed to replace Baker; I hadn't heard anything like it until - ooh, David Tennant took over from Eccleston.).

However, in the pre-Internet era fandom was 'zine and con based, and that space had the reputation of being viciously unwelcoming for female fen. Traces of that attitude remain to this day; the boards of Outpost Gallifrey, for example, before they were taken down were quite boggling in their treatment of female fen who had the temerity to comment.

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