Steve Cole Talks Romans, Companions and Writing ‘Combat Magicks’

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 second of three interviews, I spoke to Steve Cole – author of Combat Magicks.

Which episode of series eleven has been your favourite so far?

Rosa and Demons of the Punjab are probably the two best episodes so far, they really stand out. But then again I enjoyed the monsters of The Ghost Monument as well. I loved having little strips of latex with spooky voices as the bad guys. Every week has had moments that have made me think that this is a strong series and I loved Jodie from get-go. Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing for her and been concerned with how we’re going to present her in print, I’d accepted her already. But from the start she just seemed right in the part, really strong, really good Doctor qualities. And the overall approach I’ve felt has been making me really interested to see what the discussion each week has generated.

Cole has a long, storied history writing for Doctor Who including New Series novels, the Eighth Doctor Adventures range, not to mention audios and comics for seemingly every Doctor.

How did you find distinguishing the Thirteenth Doctor from the other incarnations?

I listened to Jodie’s interviews and knew, from the tiny bits of script that we’d been allowed to see, that she was quite a gobby kind of Doctor. Very enthusiastic. What I really loved about it is that she’s a Doctor with no darkness, in a way. She’s not the alien aloof Doctors or having angst moments, she’s an empowering person. She’s a relatively positive person. Also, she’s got the lovely little goofy moments as well. So actually having a Doctor like that is wonderful to write. You can put her in some really serious situations, as I did in Combat Magicks, and test her a bit. She goes through quite a lot in it. But she retains that Doctorish rapport. Una [McCormack] is absolutely right when she say that you just write the Doctor. People will project their impressions of the character onto the words anyway. But you try and make it…you know, distinctly Jodie and find the little quirks and moments. It was quite late in the day that Cardiff said to me, ‘Oh, she says “Get behind me!” a couple of times’ so I worked a few of those into the book. Little verbal cues like that can really help.

In Combat Magicks, the gang arrive in Gaul 451AD on the eve of battle between Attila the Hun and Roman General Aetius.

Did you need to do a lot of research for the historical setting or were you already familiar with it?
Steve Cole
Steve Cole

Oh gosh no, there was a lot of research. It’s difficult because, for someone like Attila the Hun, that far back you’re relying on second- and third-hand accounts but I learnt that he, or at least the image he put across, was quite a dignified one. He would plunder and loot and take all this stuff but he would drink from a plain wooden bowl. He would always treat people very evenly and with respect. But at the same time there was this massive determination to rule the world. He was one of the original megalomaniacs really. He wanted to hold everything through the power of force. And he united so many tribes under the Huns. The Roman Empire was crumbling while this was going on so it’s just an exciting time to set a story really. I know Doctor Who has done the Romans a few times but the Empire spanned so long, so many hundreds of years, you can jump in and out. It’s not like the Doctor cropping up constantly over the 20th or 21st century. So there could be many more Roman stories.

I wanted to do some massive battle scenes and the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields was one of the largest battles of the ancient world. Some people believe that the scale of it is exaggerated, but nobody was there so this allows us to imagine that it was. You’ve got Flavius Aetius on the Roman side, who was a very seasoned general, while you’ve got Attila who had united all these tribes. So it makes for a very interesting conflict for the Doctor to appear in the middle of. You can split the companions on both sides. It just seemed like a good opportunity and there are enough people to tell the story in an interesting way.

Because I was overseeing all the books I knew that Juno [Dawson] was doing the alien planet with a human vs alien setting. Una [McCormack] was doing the alien world where everything was falling apart. So I thought it was right to do a celebrity historical, but with aliens in there as well. So it’s another example of the kinds of story that Doctor Who does. That’s what I wanted to do with the first three books really.

So you took advantage of having three companions to juggle?

It worked out well because they could go and do all the things I wanted to do without having to stay together the whole time. The Doctor and Yaz stay mostly together. Graham and Ryan go off on their own but there’s a reunion at the end and a lot of coming and going in between. I’ve been interested how often on TV the team is kept together. But we didn’t know any of that; we didn’t have any access to that. Really, you just have to think about how you can best tell the story with the characters that you have. And you need enough going on to be able to give each member of the cast a strong plot. Plus I can’t wait to hear Mandip [Gill] reading the audiobook of Combat Magicks and reading all my lines as Yaz! I can’t wait for that!

How did you find the writing process? What’s the best bit?

It’s not being there at five in the morning thinking ‘I gotta sleep but I’ve got to get this finished’. I think the exciting bit is when you get the story-line agreed and approved and you’re about to set out on it. That’s a good bit and then, if you just fast forward to the end when you’ve finished it, that’s really good. Also the process of rewriting it, going back and talking to copy editors. Cardiff were very good giving the books a close reading to keep an eye on whether we got the relationships quite right and advise, which was very instructive. So it’s good to be able to interact with the production team and to get the sense that you’re doing it properly.

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


  1. I agree that “she’s a Doctor with no darkness” but to me that is the flaw in the current doctor. No conflict between the Doctors aloofness and the companions, no eyes turning to the side to contemplate the horrors of her past, no wild genius rants.

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