Outside In with Robert Smith?


by - February 23rd, 2013


Outside InRobert Smith? — the man with the question mark in his name. He’s an academic, he’s an author, he’s an editor and he’s a Doctor Who fan. His books include Braaaiiinnnsss: From Academics to Zombies, Modelling Disease Ecology with Mathematics and Who Is The Doctor (co-written with Graeme Burk). And most recently, he’s edited the mammoth essay anthology, Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers. Robert was kind enough to stop by and answer a few questions for me…

How did Outside In come about?

It really started with the “say something different” idea.

I was editing the Doctor Who Ratings Guide one day when I was reading a review of “The Seeds of Doom” by Mike Morris (the one that ended up in the book). It was such a radical take on the story that I wondered if I could find equally radical takes on all the stories. The DWRG has almost 8000 reviews, so at first I figured I could just trawl through that and surely find at least one review per story that said something different?

Sadly, the short answer was no. While there were a few that fit the bill, I quickly realised that there was no way I could fulfil this mandate just from my own website. So I started to look further afield.

And then I had the wild thought of doing 160 different writers. It had never been done before; indeed, I’d been responsible for the most diverse collection of Doctor Who essays already: Time Unincorporated 2, which had about 48 writers. This was tripling it, which seemed kind of foolish… but I also liked the challenge it presented. (I have a PhD in mathematics, so I can kind of hold this sort of complexity in my head.)

Meanwhile, I also heard on the grapevine that Arnold Blumberg was setting up a new press (ATB Publishing). Arnold was a bit unconvinced, because things on his end were really only in the planning stages. And I ended up running far ahead of the business side of things, so it felt a bit as though we were making things up as we went along. But having a definitive goal probably helped to force everything to come together.

“160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers”. Was it difficult to wrangle so many writers?

Yes and no. At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off, so I had several writers on standby to contribute further pieces. But then word of mouth helped, as good writers were able to recommend other good writers and then I got into the groove of recruiting people. Conventions helped a lot, because I just walked around with a sheet of paper with the last 20 or so stories on it and asked people if they had any radical takes on the stories in question. Almost everyone did!

I did find several brilliant pieces, but couldn’t locate the writers. I chased one guy through all the Coronation St forums for his review of “The Dominators”, but then the trail went cold, so I had to look elsewhere. Fortunately, my convention asking led to Bill Evenson’s hilarious take on the story — still my favourite piece in the collection — so it worked out in the end.

But it was also a bit of a wild ride. One of the authors demanded I not change even a single comma, not even the typo we both agreed was there. Another never sent my personal copy of the DVD back to me. I also got a bit of a reputation as a hard-sell after (entirely accurate) rumours spread that I was cracking the whip on several pieces that weren’t up to scratch. Stephanie Blumberg — the boss’s wife, incidentally! — sent me her “Silver Nemesis” piece with such fear in the email I thought she was going to have a meltdown. (Luckily, I loved it outright, so she needn’t have worried.)

But one of the things I’m so proud of is just how many new voices there are. For so many people, this is their first published work and I think that’s hugely important. So much of Doctor Who output, from the TV series to Big Finish, is jobs for the boys, with the powers that be recruiting the same old names on the entirely reasonable grounds that they can trust them to produce good stuff. I really wanted to break that cycle, which required a lot of work on my part, but the payoff was enormous.

Did you have any trouble finding writers to cover all the stories?

Finding writers was both a pleasure and an incredible challenge. I ran out of my own contacts after about 50 people, which put me in a bit of a bind. So I spent ages trawling the internet for good reviews, often striking gold on the 1,900th entry in Google. When you’ve spent two days searching for a review of “The Mutants” that doesn’t say the same old thing, the pleasure when you find exactly what you’re looking for is immense. I think I shouted for joy when I stumbled upon Philip Sandifer’s piece, never having heard of his blog before (although it’s now fairly famous).

And as I started to recruit more original writers, I simply asked them for recommendations. So it spread virally, which is something I know more than a little about, thanks to my day job. (There are a surprising number of siblings in the list, as well as a number of husband and wife teams.) The only time I sat down and thought about specific names was when I looked through the table of contents of Chicks Dig Time Lords for names of good writers. The rest was very organic.

It was actually Graeme Burk who suggested I recruit a majority of original pieces. Originally I was going to do mostly reprints, because I was worried about the budget. But then I came up with the charity idea and that helped focus things: I realised that one of the strengths of the book was that, as a group, we were much stronger than as individuals. Given that everyone — myself, Arnold and all the writers bar two whom I won’t name — donated their fees to charity, it meant we were working for something bigger than just another Doctor Who non-fiction guide.

A lot of the book’s genesis thus coasted on goodwill. I was especially pleased that the professional writers involved were happy to donate to charity, even though this is their livelihood. And some of these were just brilliant: Andrew Cartmel’s letter to me regarding “Talons of Weng-Chiang” made me laugh out loud, while David Howe stepped up very late in the day with a sweet piece on “The Mythmakers” and a photo to boot.

And then Anthony Wilson — one of the unsung heroes of Doctor Who nonfiction writing — came along and proofread the book and told me to throw away about 15 pieces and get the authors to rework about as many again. He grasped the concept of the book intuitively and had enough distance to simply tell me “no” on a number of occasions. Some of the best pieces in the book — Piers Beckley’s Shakespearen play, Stuart Milne’s letter to the reader, Stuart Douglas’s alien flow chart — are a direct result of Anthony. The only credit I give myself on this is that I wasn’t precious about anything and deferred to his judgement entirely!

What is it about Doctor Who that inspired you to take on such a huge project?

It’s the sheer diversity of talent in fandom that continues to inspire me. Go to any gathering of Doctor Who fans, even when you don’t know anyone there, and you’ll hear fascinating opinions, vociferous disagreements and new insights on decades-old stories. You hear this at conventions, at pubs and on the internet. It continually amazes me just how thoughtful and articulate Doctor Who fans can be.

So that really made my job easy. The technical accomplishment of 160 writers was a cute gimmick, but what really makes the book shine is the fact that everyone’s saying something different. (Sometimes very  different: the other proofreader, Paul Simpson, complained that Lindy Orthia’s intense academic dissection of “Ghost Light” gave him whiplash after Sean Twist’s hilarious within-text take on “Battlefield”.) It meant I really just had to sit back and watch everyone bring their A-game to the table. That made it a joy to assemble and then edit.

You’ve written about Doctor Who, zombies and even Justin Bieber. What’s next?

I’m going to create a mathematical model of a Monoid invasion. You heard it here first.

Thank you Robert. That was a rather lengthy interview, so I won’t add anything beyond…

Catch ya later,  George

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