Part 2 of my interview with Magic Bullet producer / writer / audio dramatist Alan Stevens picks up where we left off and hits the following topics: knowing when to end stories, the creative potential and individual fulfillment to be had in writing with licensed properties, why Avon and Iago are psychopathic bastards (or are they the same psychopathic bastard?), and of course, Faustian bargains. As in part 1 of this interview, audio clips from Kaldor City are embedded throughout. Additional sound clips from Magic Bullet’s The True History of Faction Paradox audio serial can be found in my overview of that series here. To go directly to Magic Bullet’s website, click their logo above.
Stevens is a unique voice in the field, and whether you agree with his positions or not, you can’t fault the dedication, quality, or intelligence behind his work. Whether you consider yourself a “genre fan” or “above such things”, if you value good audio drama then you need to read this interview.
CD: So at this point you don’t know what’s up next for Magic Bullet after Faction Paradox concludes?
AS: No idea at all. There might be something else, but, then again, there might not. There might be a huge gap and then something. You get that with my stuff – we did Coming to Dust and The Ship of a Billion Years, followed by this huge gap, and then suddenly we appeared again with Body Politic, Words from Nine Divinities and Ozymandias. Part of the reason for this was that I wasn’t sure how well Faction Paradox was going to sell, and the amount of sales affects the amount of money you have to spend on the series. Faction didn’t sell as well as Kaldor City initially, but then it picked up a lot, and it now sells very well. Sales are good and people like it. However, I still don’t believe you should carry on with a series beyond its natural life, just because the sales are good. I just don’t see the point of going through the motions and carrying on with something, if you think the story’s been told. Does that make sense?
CD: It makes perfect sense. I’ve often had the same feeling, that it’s a shame when stories are exhausted and carried on for pure profit beyond their natural lifespan. So it’s refreshing to hear you say that.
AS: Good. There are TV shows out there that should have ended three years ago, but are still going because the profit margins are good.
CD: I did want to ask about that – in terms of commercial audio drama production (outside of the BBC) Britain’s evolved a peculiar culture distinct from the United States and Germany. In the US, there’s original work, original serials, adaptations of novels and things like that, in Germany there’s a lot of children’s drama and work based on older pulp novels and some original serials, whereas in Britain commercial audio drama seems to be largely defined mostly by spin-offs from mostly defunct British television science fiction. I was wondering, since you’re one of the forces that has put that forward, why do you think the British market has evolved with that emphasis?
AS: In Britain the last drama to have an audience bigger than television on radio was Journey into Space in 1955. When television came along, basically, and audience stopped listening to audio drama and started watching television. I think the reason why Big Finish appeared was because Doctor Who had been off the air for seventeen years and people missed it, and probably many of them had, like me, tape-recorded Doctor Who stories off the television when they were kids, so they were primed for audio. Of course, I’m sure you know that various Doctor Who stories were stupidly wiped by the BBC, and only exist as audios now because they were tape-recorded on first broadcast by fans. And so this culture within fandom for audio developed.
Personally, I wouldn’t produce anything that isn’t in some way connected to an established series, because without a huge advertising budget, I can’t make a big enough impact on people to buy it. Shall I buy something l know, like Doctor Who or Blake’s 7, or shall I buy something I’ve never heard of before? The fact is that the audio market is mainly aimed at fandoms, as it’s mainly fandoms who are buying audio stuff. And there’s not a lot of ‘original drama,’ if, indeed, there is such a thing, being made because people just won’t buy it. I know people who have produced their own stand alone dramas, and they have generally failed to sell any more than two hundred copies. You might take a chance on buying a film you’ve never seen before, but with audio drama, there’s this barrier now, because people think in TV terms and not radio terms. As for mainstream America, there appears to be virtually no market at all for radio plays.
CD: It’s a small market.
AS: We have a history of radio plays in Britain, but perhaps there wasn’t one in America. Germany, perhaps there was a strong history – I don’t know how well stuff in Germany sells –
CD: It sells pretty well, apparently.
AS: If it’s successful as a new series in its own right, then perhaps there’s a stronger bias toward radio than there is in Britain and certainly in America.
CD: Well, there’s a different audio drama pop culture history to all three countries. In the USA it’s currently mostly original stuff, but it’s probably mostly original stuff that doesn’t sell very well, as you were saying. It’s mostly just the hard-core audio drama fans –
AS: I’ve had people approach me saying I’ve got this great idea for a series – in fact, there’s a friend of mine who I worked with on a series called The Unworthy about a motorcycle gang who were actually the original Knights of the Round Table. It was this black, anarchic comedy, and we even wrote a script. But I’d never produce it as a direct-to-CD product, because I just don’t think it would sell. Not that I think it isn’t any good; I think it’s brilliant. But it hasn’t got that connection there. There are certain stories and characters within Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 that are highly regarded, that people are willing to buy into. But an audio series of Star Cops – would that sell? I don’t know. It hasn’t been on British TV for about twenty years. You have to be very careful choosing what you do, because it can really cost you if it fails, because audio drama is so very expensive.
CD: Especially, I think, to do it on the level that you do.
AS: If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it to the best of your ability. I’ve known some producers who have said, I want this out by Christmas, and they’ve rushed to hit that deadline. I think that’s just crazy. At the end of the day, I want to be proud of what I’ve done and not feel we compromised it because we had to get it out for Christmas.
CD: I think that standard is apparent in your productions.
AS: Thank you.
(Robot V23 “talks” to the Chief Fixer in this surreal clip from Kaldor City Story Six: Storm Mine.)
CD: Absolutely. You wrapped up Kaldor City on a metaphysical note. Storm Mine was almost dreamlike, and seemed to appeal to an almost subconscious understanding of the characters rather than the more linear story prior to it. Faction Paradox is teeming with ideas, most of them about time. And yet, in terms of narrative structure the series is actually pretty linear. It mainly follows these two heroines who jump around in time, but once they’re set in their new time zone, they basically progress from start to finish. If there’s one disappointment I would have with the series thus far, it’s that it would be fascinating to hear what a “weapon that can rewrite history” sounds like. Narratively, sonically – these are things Lawrence Miles could surely write, and Alistair Lock could surely realize in sound – they have the skills to do that. There’s a way in which the more advanced ideas about time are never incorporated into the narrative structure – they’re more like trappings or context for the more straightforward drama that plays out.
AS: I can’t really comment, because a lot of the things you’re pointing out here are addressed in the last two episodes.
CD: I’m looking forward to them.
Do you personally have any ambitions to do your own original work in any medium, or do you feel soul-satisfied in pushing these established properties further, I think, than they’ve ever been? This is something I’ve been thinking about over the years, because more and more I’ve come to recognize that a lot of the people who work on established properties are genuine talents. It certainly seems that there are a lot of people feeling very fulfilled doing great work within pre-established universes. Is that the case for you, or do you have the urge to birth a completely original Alan Stevens world?
AS: Kaldor City has the surface elements of The Robots of Death and Blake’s 7, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on in there. New characters, new takes on older characters as they face different situations. Kaldor City was something more than a pastiche of old glories, it was trying to do something different. It was a Magic Bullet – it had a surface coating of Blake’s 7 and The Robots of Death, but the core of it was something else. If I had just done a series without the Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who trappings, then no-one would have bought it. But working within that coating allowed me to say a lot of things and do a lot of things that I wanted to say and do.
You have to sell some CDs or you’re not going to be able to fund the project. If you’re going to do a six-part series, you effectively have to ensure it sells, because it costs thousands and thousands of pounds to produce. If Coming to Dust had just sold two hundred copies there wouldn’t have been any more Faction Paradox CDs after that one, because the finance wouldn’t have been there to do it. So it has to sell.
CD: Between that statement and the work that you’ve done you’ve provided the most compelling argument I’m aware of in the audio drama field for the vitality of working creatively within that coating, as you describe it. On the other hand, I think you would agree that what you do is quite different from taking the safest route: producing work as close as possible to what came before. To really emulate the original shows and their plot lines to the point where you could slot them into a preceding TV season. I’ve never watched Blake’s 7 so I can’t speak to that. But my impression of what you do is that you always push these concepts and characters into new territory, and you inject a literate, intellectual component that isn’t always there in the original source material.
AS: I’m not sure how true that is. Chris Boucher once told me that anyone who tells you they’ve come up with a completely original idea is either a liar, or insane, and probably both. If you look at an episode of anything, you can crack it back to something else. And if you forensically take most stories apart, you can often find some interesting ideas within them. They may not have been consciously put in by the author, but they’re there, and part of the process of analyzing a story is to find those elements and bring them out.
Also, it’s a case of seeing what a writer’s done, how the audience reacted to it, and working with that. For example, one of the things that annoyed the hell out of me concerning Blake’s 7 was the treatment of Avon by certain fans. Yes, there was this setup within the series where the audience frequently didn’t know whether he was doing something for selfish, or for altruistic reasons, but generally, and Paul Darrow, the guy who played him, says this, Avon was a bastard. In fact such a bastard, he shot and killed Blake, the show’s title character. Even the programme’s producers have described Avon as a psycho. And yet, often you’d find articles by people trying to justify his more extreme acts. “Oh well, he may have killed Blake, but Blake should have explained himself more clearly.” So when Iago appeared, also played by Paul Darrow, I didn’t want to fall into the same trap, and so really tried to push the character as far as I could, to make his actions appear shocking. There’s a scene in Hidden Persuaders where Iago tells Blayes that he can get her out of this dangerous situation, but first the hostages will have to be dealt with, as they can identify who she is. He then goes over and shoots them. And they are terrified, and he’s clearly getting a kick out of it.
Now, you can understand that sort of behaviour, but you can’t excuse it. Some people say, “I don’t believe Iago is Avon, because Avon wouldn’t do things like that.” Well, I don’t care whether you believe he’s Avon or not, but what I certainly don’t want you doing is looking for excuses to justify murderous and sociopathic behaviour. So when you’re writing, you’re thinking “What did the writers/producers originally intend, where, if at all, did it go wrong, what was the audience reaction, and, if it did go wrong, how can I avoid falling into a similar pit?”
Another idea I like very much is having an authority figure come along and say, “this and that has happened”, where, in fact, no such thing has happened at all. In Occam’s Razor, Carnell comes up with a self serving motivation to explain the Firstmaster killings, but in reality, nobody really knows why Iago went off and killed all those people. And it’s the same for the Shakespearean Iago, why the hell did he behave that way? There are a number of motivations assigned to him in Othello, and he even assigns some to himself, but we don’t really know why he did what he did. Maybe the character didn’t even know himself.
(Iago tests the limits of Landerchild’s grasp of reality in this philosophical clip from The Prisoner, a short Kaldor City play included on MJTV’s The Actor Speaks 4: Paul Darrow.)
People are very susceptible to being told what to think by authority figures, and that such and such is the current state of affairs, where in fact the real situation is most probably completely different. For instance, I’ve read a number of reviews of Taren Capel, where it’s been stated that, “in this episode Iago discovered that the Tarenists were trying to get hold of a special trigger phrase to activate the killer robots”. But in actual fact, Iago made that up. The trigger phrase existed, but the Tarenists didn’t know anything about it. Iago’s primary intention was to discredit Carnell and get him killed, and he was willing to say anything to achieve that. And yet, because Iago is an ‘authority figure,’ and he has a deep voice and he says all of this, and Uvanov, another ‘authority figure,’ believes him, people think, “well, then it must be true”. But I don’t think it’s true. In fact, I know it isn’t true. I bloody wrote it!
So in Kaldor City there are competing narratives and everything is subverted. A lot of the things you are told are completely wrong. Some of the things Carnell said were lies. And Iago by definition is a liar. Paullus was deluded, and Uvanov was a paranoid, who had various ideas and conspiracies in his mind that were just plain fantasy. They were the architects of their own destruction, because they failed to comprehend what was going on around them, preferring instead to just carry on fighting their own personal and petty little wars. So as with the real world, in Kaldor City we have people who are deluded, people who are fantasists, people who are just plain liars, and people who, for their own various reasons, want to believe them.
CD: Oh, absolutely. The need to believe invented premises, I feel, has been the American story under Bush.
AS: There was an unfortunate coincidence, when Occam’s Razor came out; it had been recorded in 2000, but was released in early September 2001, and the first review I read of it tied 9/11 to a scene where a flyer crashed into a building. There was no way I knew that was going to happen – it was written perhaps seventeen or eighteen months before those events took place. And yet, because I was fishing in the same pool, because we were dealing with terrorism and fanaticism, the story strangely started to mirror things that were happening in real life. It’s weird that, isn’t it? If you think like a terrorist … I think Alan Moore was exploring this in V for Vendetta, when he had this guy, who was trying to get into the mindset of V, taking the same drugs V had been forced to take, and wandering around the same camp where V had been experimented on, so he would start to think like him, and would perhaps know what he was going to do next. It was quite shocking when I realized, “Good grief, we are fishing in the same pool as Bin Laden.”
As for George Bush, there are again parallels with Kaldor City in that people have plans, but these plans usually go horribly wrong. I’m sure in Bush’s head there were a number of very good reasons for invading Iraq, but he’s never going to tell us what they were and the result was a terrible disaster. In Kaldor City, Uvanov would have a plan, and Carnell would have a plan, and Landerchild would have a plan, and in fact everyone would have a plan, and you don’t even know what all the plans were, and then they’d all go horribly wrong. So what you ended up with was a mass of mistakes and errors caused through stupidity and misunderstanding, with no one knowing what the hell was going to happen next. And that’s what life is. Life’s frequently like that for me. I think: “What the hell was that about? Why did I do that?”
(Uvanov watches his plans, power, and understanding go up in smoke as the ineluctably calm Carnell pursues a cryptic game of chess in this clip from Kaldor City Story Four: Taren Capel.)
CD: (Laughs) That sounds like a sane approach to life… Are there other audio dramatists working today that you particularly admire?
AS: I think Rob Shearman is a very good writer. I think he’s an excellent writer.
CD: I would agree with that.
AS: And Daniel O’Mahony of course, and Jim Smith, and there are also several others I could name. Paul Dale Smith is a very clever chap, and Lawrence Miles is an excellent writer as well. I don’t often agree with Lawrence Miles, I’ve had several arguments with him, but never over his scripts.
CD: You’ve touched on this in your comments already, but could you sum up the state of your business?
AS: I’ve been told by other audio producers that there is a limited shelf life to their products. They produce a story, it comes out, and then after a few months it stops selling and they never sell any more. But I’ve never had that with Kaldor City, or Faction Paradox. They’ve sold solidly. Occam’s Razor came out in 2001 and I’m still selling it.
CD: Is that due to advertising or word of mouth?
AS: It must be word of mouth. Since Doctor Who’s come back it’s very difficult to get advertising anywhere in the Doctor Who media. They’re too busy reviewing the latest Cyberman-Voice-Changer-Helmet to find room for anything else. But it doesn’t seem to make any difference. I think the CDs sells because they’re good, and people recognize that. I’ve certainly been sent some lovely emails over the years, which is all very encouraging. I was expecting a drop in sales when Doctor Who came back on TV, but as Kaldor City and Faction Paradox are clearly spin-offs, then I suppose you have to be in a spin-off frame of mind anyway to buy them, so the return of Doctor Who hasn’t knocked our sales at all. They’ve all sold very well. In fact sales have gone up. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s my Faustian pact. I have this pact with Satan. He’s the one working on my sales promotion at the moment.
CD: I hope you made your Faustian pact in the tradition of Goethe rather than Marlowe. You know he gets off the hook in Goethe’s version?
AS: That’s right. He gets off the hook through the love of a good woman. I prefer bad women, myself. That’s probably why I’m doing Faction Paradox.
CD: Alan, thanks for talking with me today.
AS: A pleasure.