Not only has he written for The Sarah Jane Adventures, his works include Torchwood, Sapphire and Steel, Doctor Who, several tie-in websites for the BBC's wonderful adaptation of Sherlock and more. Joe is fast becoming one of those names cropping up everywhere.
In Torchwood you had Owen dealing with the fact that he is suddenly “dead.” Mark of the Beserker showed Clyde’s family problems, The Mad woman in the Attic went through Rani’s past and the insecurities of Eve and now we have the fabulous Nightmare Man with Luke’s fears. Would you agree that it’s fair to say your writing can be typified as having a strong emotional theme?
“Yeah. I love exploring a character and finding out what makes them tick. I think I’ve always done it really but it’s especially noticeable on SJA because I’ve done one about Clyde, one about Rani and one about Luke. I think the thing I always try to do with these type of stories is to make sure that they’re not too angsty or sedate. I try to put a lot of jokes and action and scary moments in them as well, as nobody wants to watch two characters sitting there endlessly talking about their feelings and being miserable and so on. So, Clyde and his Dad will have a serious conversation but it follows on from a shopping spree montage. Rani talks about her feelings but she’s chatting to a bright red alien girl who’s controlling a bunch of zombies in a spooky theme park. Luke’s fears and feelings are represented as dark and scary and also occasionally amusing nightmares. I think, for me, the most important aspect is that the story feels emotionally real. During discussions in script meetings, my response to something will often be “But Luke just wouldn’t do that!” I suspect that in my head, the characters are a little bit real. Which probably isn’t healthy!”
All your stories with Sarah Jane seem to shove her out of the way a bit, is this something you choose to do and focus on the other characters or is it because you don’t feel confident writing for Sarah Jane?
“With Mark of the Berserker it’s something I was specifically asked to do but really, my stories tend to focus on a particular character so it’s easier if Sarah Jane has less of a presence. She’s actually in Mad Woman and Nightmare Man a fair bit – it’s just there are lots of scenes of Rani or Luke having their own story so it feels a bit different. And the fact is that if you’re writing a story about Clyde and his father you want lots of scenes that concentrate on Clyde and his father – having Sarah Jane in those scenes just wouldn’t work. Lis always jokes that I write her out but the truth is, I’d love to write a huge Sarah Jane story. I love giving Lis things to do – even if it’s just dress up as a nurse or as a batty old version of Sarah Jane. She’s so good at comedy and I’d love to write a big fun story all about Sarah Jane herself.”
You also edited a series of short stories, how different is your approach to editing or abridging other works from starting an original story fresh?
“I think it’s pretty similar really. My belief is that if something is scary, it should be really scary. If it’s funny, really funny. I want to make an audience laugh and cry and shut their eyes terrified – and when I edited that book, I pushed for the writers to do the same. I specifically asked for no stories that opened with Doctor Who and his companion in the TARDIS having a chat and blah blah blah because, in a short story, you haven’t got time for that. To be honest, though, I chose the writers I did because I knew they’d be brilliant. And they were!”
You’re obviously a fan of Doctor Who, but you haven’t just stayed with writing that. You wrote some audio books for Sapphire and Steel, but in one the sleeve notes for Daisy Chain you point out that you were two when the series ended. How much research do you feel you need to do on and era when you’re writing audio books?
“I think you need to know it but not be tied to it. I went out and bought the Sapphire and Steel DVDs so I understood the show (and I loved it) but I didn’t feel compelled to worry too much about capturing the late-70s vibe because I was writing something that was coming out in 2004. And that might be why it shocked a few people. It was the same with my Doctor Who audios. As a fan, I understood that they were meant to be set between two particular TV stories however many years ago but I always tried to write them as modern drama. I don’t believe in writing something for the sake of nostalgia. What’s the point? If I’m spending money on a piece of drama I want it to move me, to scare me or whatever – I don’t want to sit there thinking ‘Oh, I can just imagine this being on the telly in 1983’.”
This is probably a really obvious and dull question that you get asked all the time, but how do you find your inspiration for writing?
“People. The way they talk to each other. The way different types of people talk. Relationships. Everything like that really. Even if I’m having an argument with someone, part of my brain is analysing it – working out why I’m saying what I’m saying and why they’re saying what they’re saying. I’m surprised my family and friends haven’t noticed more often when I’ve put them into a script.”
You wrote the content for several tie-in websites relating to the fictional world of the new television series, Sherlock. If Steven Moffat ever asked you to write an episode, would that be something you would in interested in? It’s not quite science fiction, but I think you’d write a cracking episode.
“Oh yeah. I loved Sherlock and I really enjoyed doing the websites. To be honest, my main ambition at the moment is to write some TV that isn’t related to Doctor Who. I’m actually not the world’s biggest science fiction fan. I appreciate it and think some of it is brilliant but I tend to like it more when it’s horror or adventure or whatever that just happens to be sci-fi. I think all my Sarah Jane scripts have been written as horror stories really- even though I’m generally a wuss when it comes to watching horror movies.”