Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Master Switches - An Interview with Joshua Wanisko

Writer and the first ever Big Finish short-trips winner, Joshua Wanisko talks to Altrix about his Master Piece's story 'The Many Faces of Weng Chiang'. Don't be fooled by the title though, this intoxicating blend of high drama and black humour isn't the story you might be expecting...

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I first encountered Doctor Who more than thirty years ago. It was in the middle of the episode in Full Circle where Romana is infected with the Marshman DNA. I thought ‘This is weird and I don't understand it, but I guess I'll watch it, because it's science fiction.’ I still love Doctor Who, obviously, and I’m an especially big fan of the audio stories by Big Finish.

I live in rural New Jersey, USA with my wife and daughter and a whole bunch of cats.  I have written for Big Finish Productions and Geek Speak and my work has appeared in Time Shadows: Second Nature, Defending Earth, Sockhops & Seances, Pizza Parties and Poltergeists, Unbound Imaginings and the Lovecraft eZine.  If I can ever get past my lockdown malaise, I hope to complete an idiosyncratic time travel trilogy by the end of the year.

What made you want to write a story for Master Switches? 

Because I like the Master and I thought I could tell a story people would enjoy reading. It’s as simple as that. The Classic era Master, and the Geoffrey Beevers Master in particular, though I also have a soft spot for the self-foiling Ainley and Delgado Masters.

How would you describe your story in a nutshell? 

One piece of trivia about The Talons of Weng-Chiang that I find fascinating is that it was originally written with the Master as the villain, but the baddie was revised to be the original creation of Magnus Greel when Philip Hinchcliffe didn’t want to have the Master revealed as the secret villain so soon after The Deadly Assassin. (If only they had exercised this kind of restraint during the Fifth Doctor’s era…)

Once you know this fact, the parallels are very obvious (the time cabinet is a TARDIS, Greel says that Leela will be ‘the first morsel to feed my regeneration’), but I don’t know if I would have ever connected the dots if it hadn’t been pointed out to me.

That’s the aspect of the story that stuck with me. The core of much science fiction is the question of ‘What if?’ and Doctor Who even more so. This story asks the metatextual question, ‘What if the Master arrived to implement his plan and found that someone else has already started it?’

What made you decide which Master and Doctor combo to go with? 

The Master was preordained, because Greel was originally written as the decaying Master and it made sense to use him. Now that I had the Master, I went through each Doctor trying to determine which incarnation would be the most fun to bounce off of the Master. I went with the Eighth, in part as a nod to the McGann recording of Shada, where he fills in for the Fourth Doctor to correct the timeline.

How did you find the writing process?

The brief did present some considerable challenges, but it was entirely my fault. I was extremely proud of the original pitch I had written for the collection. Before I sent it out, I reviewed the guidelines to make sure that I was doing everything properly, and to my horror, I discovered that I had been reading the submission guidelines for Master Pieces, the previous collection of stories about the Master, and my submission was completely at odds with the request. 

I was even happy with the title. Titles always give me trouble.  

‘We're all stories, in the end. Just make MINE a good one.’

Pitch: Our universe holds infinite possibilities. The Land of Fiction encompasses an infinity of universes. The Master has a plan to make it his own.

By writing his memoirs as a work of fiction, but changing some minor details, the Master intends to show that his most humiliating defeats were deliberate misdirection, mere distractions to camouflage the pursuit of his actual goal.

The plan cannot fail. With these words, he will sculpt the clay of creation in his likeness.

He just needs to find a ghost writer.

Summary: The Master has discovered the Land of Fiction. He wants to rewrite his encounters with the Doctor so that what were apparently defeats were actually victories. He'll then take the manuscript to the Land of Fiction, where will become reality. Problem is he can't write worth a damn (‘He’s only good at making anagrams of his name’), so he needs someone to do it for him. He eventually finds a freelancer to ghost write the manuscript, but true to form, he betrays the ghostwriter needlessly. The ghostwriter dies, but not before submitting an earlier version of the manuscript where the Master fails.

Once I was actually working on it, the biggest difficulty was getting it done during lockdown. 2020 took a toll on everyone and finding the focus to see the story through to its conclusion took a great deal of effort.

What aspect of your story are you most proud of? 

The story was informed by Kate Orman’s essay ‘One of us is Yellow’: Doctor Fu Manchu and The Talons of Weng-Chiang from the collection Doctor Who and Racein particular her observations about Li H’Sen Chang:

‘Of the two chief villains, ‘the crafty Chang’ (as the novelization’s blurb calls him) is by far the more interesting character. While Greel lurches around his lair, bellowing, Chang the illusionist negotiates the surrounding hostile alien culture – brilliantly, by turning its own assumptions against it. Chang, who speaks immaculate English, drops into his stage patter whenever he needs to convince someone he is a harmless and comical ‘Chinee’. At the police station in episode 1, he is debonair: ‘Not at all, Sergeant. I’m always happy to be of service to the police. What can I do for you this time? […] You seem remarkably well-informed, Doctor. Alas, I know nothing of these matters.’ But on stage, Chang plays to his audience’s assumptions and prejudices, speaking stilted English, exaggerating his accent (‘First tlick velly simple!’), and, when the Doctor strolls out of the ‘cabinet of death’, quipping, ‘The bird has flown. One of us is yellow.’ There is sometimes an edge of satire to Chang’s remarks: when the Doctor asks ‘Don’t I know you?’, Chang smilingly answers, ‘I understand we all look the same’.’

My favourite kind of story is a tale of redemption, and as flawed as Talons is on matters of race, it is not without empathy in its portrayal of Li H’Sen Chang. It was that aspect that I chose to emphasise here, that of a man who had been brought to this point by his own decisions, but who was not so far gone that he could not imagine returning to the light.

What’s your favourite line from your story?

‘Wei recoiled. This was not the face of a man. It was the death mask of a living corpse, a monstrosity from Nai Nai's tales of the old country. It was an abomination that should have died in the inferno that scarred it, but lived so that the fact of its existence might blaspheme the natural world. It was a charred skeleton, animated by a vast hatred and a monstrous force of will. It was a walking nightmare. It was fear made flesh. It was…

‘I am the Master,’ it said. ‘And you will obey me.’’


Post a Comment