Juno Dawson Talks Rosa, Religion and Writing ‘The Good Doctor’

On Friday, the authors of three new Doctor Who novels starring the Thirteenth Doctor took part in a signing event at Forbidden Planet in London. They were kind enough to chat to me about their time writing the books and thoughts on series eleven. In the first of three interviews, I spoke to Juno Dawson – author of The Good Doctor.

Which episode of series eleven has been your favourite so far?
THE GOOD DOCTOR BY JUNO DAWSON
THE GOOD DOCTOR BY JUNO DAWSON

I think Rosa has been my favourite episode. I thought it was incredibly emotionally involving. I’m a huge Malorie Blackman fan and have been for many years; I started writing because of Noughts and Crosses. For the first time it felt like we were really getting to know the cast, as well, they felt a little more settled in. Honestly, I wouldn’t say this otherwise, I think Rosa is one of the best episodes they’ve done in years.

How did you find the writing process?

It’s really daunting! It’s difficult. It’s not like writing a normal novel in that you can’t really do just anything with the characters. Like you can’t chop of Yaz’s arm because of course that’s not going to be onscreen. You’ve got to be very careful about what you can and can’t do with the characters. But when it was just The Doctor being The Doctor you realise that many, many writers over many, many decades have tapped into what this character is and their ethos and that was such a treat, being able to write for such an iconic character.

With these novels written before series eleven began airing, The Good Doctor has nevertheless perfectly rendered the new cast.

Did you have any trouble capturing the voices of new characters?
Juno Dawson
Juno Dawson

It was really hard but I’d say there’s an element of luck in that we were feeling our way with very little information. I’d kind of guessed that Bradley Walsh [Graham] was going to be Bradley Walsh, in that when I’ve seen him act in other things he brings a lot of himself to his characters. He was in this really old show I used to love called Night and Day which I used to watch at University. He’d been in Law & Order as well so I was able to find some stuff to go on.

The difficulty with Mandip [Gill, who plays Yaz] and Tosin [Cole, who plays Ryan] was that there wasn’t much to go on; they’re still quite new as professionals. We had a little information to go on and [we knew that] they’re from Sheffield [and] 19 years old. Luckily, there were notes from the BBC saying “Ryan wouldn’t say that” or “Yaz wouldn’t say that”. But, thank god, when the series started I was relieved that the book was fairly close to how they were on screen. With Jodie, we’d heard she was playing her as Yorkshire. I’m from Yorkshire so if there was ever a dialect that I could write it, Yorkshire was the safest bet!

Dawson’s previous work in the Doctor Who universe includes two Torchwood audio stories – The Dollhouse and Orr.

Going from Torchwood to Doctor Who, were there any ideas you had which wouldn’t have worked with the younger audience?

Not really, I mean Torchwood was always best when it avoided doing that sort of Hollyoaks Late stuff, like it shouldn’t be Doctor Who with swearing. That’s not what Torchwood was and I think when you watch Children of Earth [series three] and look at the darkness in that it shows that the show was not just about sex and swearing. The Dollhouse in particular was about exploitation, particularly of women, which is something Doctor Who maybe couldn’t do if it’s quite dark and quite adult.

But then when it came to writing this Doctor Who book there’s a lot in there about religion extremism and dogmaticness…that’s not a word… and racism and misogyny. So actually you can still think about those big issues even in Doctor Who. I think that’s what this [eleventh] season has really shown: that you can tackle something as big as Rosa Parks to examine racism and partition in Pakistan and that’s all in Doctor Who and that’s great. That’s big, dark stuff!

Outside of Doctor Who, Dawson’s previous work includes the 2017 book The Gender Games exploring themes of gender identity.

The story doesn’t dwell on it, but were you tempted to write anything on the Doctor’s change of gender?
THE GENDER GAMES BY JUNO DAWSON
THE GENDER GAMES BY JUNO DAWSON

I think, as you’ll notice, I don’t spend a lot of time in the Doctor’s head. Because I think for the best part of 60 years, we’ve never really needed to know who the Doctor is. It’s enough that they’re an alien, which I think is something that Russell T Davies [executive producer, 2005 – 2010] understood really well when he introduced us to the new series via Rose [Tyler, played by Billie Piper]. Even calling the first episode Rose. The Doctor, whether they like Jodie Whittaker or David Tennant, is an unknowable alien! So really I don’t think that alien is going to muse on gender in a way that humans would understand it.

A journalist from a newspaper did ask me how I felt about the Doctor being transgender and I went, ‘No, the Doctor is not transgender, the Doctor doesn’t have gender dysphoria; the Doctor is an alien’. I think it’s important that we make a clear distinction between a Gallifreyan extraterrestrial and a human transgender woman. It’s not the same thing. It never occurred to me to pitch a story about gender. Although, since having written this, I have thought of a story that’s much more about gender which I’m going to save for when Chris Chibnall gives me a ring. It could happen any day now, we don’t know!

The story is merciless in how it discusses religion, what drove that theme?

Initially, there was much more stuff in there about Yaz being Muslim. because we weren’t sure how Muslim Yaz was at this point we were asked to take out quite a bit of detail. We couldn’t get a definite answer out of whether she was a practising Muslim, if she eats Halal meat, if she go to mosque…now that we’ve seen a few episodes I think we can say that yes, she does. But during the writing process we didn’t know.

I didn’t want to bash religion at all. The idea was that there was this really restrictive, cruel religion on Lobos [the main setting of The Good Doctor] but Yaz was there going, “Actually, I’m a Muslim and I’m not [like that]”. I thought it was very important to have someone being a champion for faith, which was the real difference in there. It’s a shame that Yaz couldn’t have been more Muslim but I can understand why we needed to be very careful not to derail what Chris Chibnall is doing.

Many thanks to Juno Dawson and the fine folk at BBC Books and Penguin Random House for letting me chat to them. Check out my interviews with Una McCormack and Steve Cole as well!

Also check out my review of The Good Doctor here.

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