Writing Dr Who: final thoughts

Just some quick final thoughts on Doctor Who – or more specifically, some final thoughts on the Russell T Davies era of the show.

The final chapter

Attentive readers of this blog may remember a post (from 16 months ago! Yeesh) in which I wrote about and praised a book called “The Writer’s Tale” written through a series of email and text exchanges between Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook over the course of a year, and giving an insight not only into the Doctor Who show itself (it’s sort of a “Doctor Who annual for grown-ups” in that regard) but also into the mechanics of making a 21st century television show and – best of all as far as I’m concerned – a really honest, uncensored look into the art and craft and science of writing.

It’s a brilliant book, and last week it got even better with the publication of the paperback version, “The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter“, which added an entire second year’s worth of material to make it as much a follow-up/sequel as just a “paperback edition”. Where the first book covered the writing of the show’s fourth series, this new edition takes us through the writing of the specials – right through to the final words Davies writes for David Tennant’s Doctor – and also how the show handled breaking the news of Tennant’s departure and the new Doctor’s unveiling. In a nice post-modern touch the book even follows the authors as they promote the first edition of the book and the reactions to it, and the effect that it has on the writing of this edition and of the show.

It really is terrific stuff, I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in Doctor Who, writing, or television. If nothing else, you’ll simply enjoy the company of Davies and Cook’s often witty, searingly honest, and always insightful repartee over the course of two years.

If nothing else can persuade you, how about the following brief teasers:

  • Want to share the exact moment, read the very email, where Davies worked out exactly how the Doctor would die?
  • Want to know who nudged and cajoled Davies into the spectacular return of Gallifrey, even as budget concerns threatened to result in the axing of an entire special?
  • Wondered who The Woman played by Claire Bloom was in “The End of Time”? There’s a definitive answer.
  • And how about the postscript casually mentioning that new boy Matt Smith had just done to dinner at Steven Moffat’s (Davies’ replacement) house with Peter Davison and David Tennant? How Dr Who fandom didn’t implode at that moment is still a mystery.

A brilliant book, please do buy it.

A final review

The problem with reading a book like “The Writer’s Take – The Final Chapter” is that you find out, understand and empathise with what the writer went through creating something like “The End of Time.” It then becomes very hard to critique the finished work without feeling harsh, that you’re wounding someone who has sweated blood producing the script that you’re casually throwing barbs at. I wasn’t exactly kind to Part 1 of “The End of Time” in my review and I now feel bad about it, even if I meant every word of it and was honestly trying not to be harsh. At least I can be happy that I was positive about Part 2.

The trouble is, after reading in the book how the script evolved and how it ended up the way it did, it’s impossible not to think better of it. You get sucked in, you take a swig of the Kool-Aid, and objectivity gets kicked into touch. You can see how successful writers (and CEOs and politicians) quickly get surrounded by yes-men – not because everyone’s sucking up to the boss, but because once you’re on the inside and see what’s gone into this sort of endeavour it’s hard to stay one step removed and say “No! That’s a bad idea. Cut that!” You get swept along and everything in the garden is rose-tinted.

But even before I read the new parts of the paperback edition of the book, I’d started to realise that Russell T Davies scripts need more than one viewing – especially Doctor Who ones. The first viewing comes with all sorts of expectations, packed with “oh, he shouldn’t have done it that way” moments. Doctor Who fans are too involved with the show just to sit back and be uncritical so it’s hard to just enjoy the episode without judging it and wanting it to be better.

The thing is, when you can go back some time afterwards and just watch an episode without all the hype and expectations, you suddenly realise just how good it was. Case in point was “Partners in Crime”, the first episode of season 4, which was burdened at the time by being the first of a new season and the start of Catherine Tate’s stint as a companion (a controversial move at the time, now universally lauded as a masterstroke and Tate as Best! Companion! Ever!) Against that the alien threat was a daft, throw-away CGI collection of “fat monsters”.

We watched this episode as a way of coming down from “The End of Time”, just a bit of light relief that we could talk through. Except we didn’t: we ended up really watching and enjoying it. I’d remembered certain bits I’d liked: the early ‘farce’ scenes where the Doctor and Donna keep missing each other; their first meeting done in superb mime through office windows; the stunt sequences hanging from a window cleaner’s platform off a tall office block. But the odd thing was that all the things I thought I hadn’t liked so much suddenly seemed so much better, from Sarah Lancaster’s deliciously performed Supernanny villain to the cheerful little CGI Adipose blobs. Dammit, I was even moved to wave at the little critters by the end. I was totally sold on it.

And then mid-week I caught most of the reshowing of “The End of Time” Part 1 on BBC3 one evening. I hadn’t intended to watch, but I did, mesmerised by how well the show had been put together, the terrific John Simm doing a Heath Ledger Joker-inspired villain, and of course David Tennant being generally magnificent, dammit. Somehow the problems with the episode seemed far less important than the triumphs.

I suspect that Russell T Davies’ episodes of Doctor Who are the kind of productions that get better with age and repeated viewings. Maybe that’s just a different way of drinking the Kool-Aid, but it’s suddenly made me think how wonderful it is to have the DVDs of a show that does get better each time you watch, rather than some of the flashy US shows (like CSI for example) which are fantastic when you watch them but which have exactly zero re-watch value.

All at once I’m suddenly thinking that it’s not the end of the Tennant era at all: just the start of the opportunity to go back and watch the Tenth Doctor properly as a completed piece of work at last.

Finally finally

Oh, and for some reason, having been unconvinced and a little anxious about the show post-Tennant, I suddenly find that I’m also completely optimistic about the new series coming up in the Spring, and about Matt Smith. Whether it’s seeing him at “The End of Time”, or the new season trailer shown on BBC TV, or the publicity shots, or reading the first interviews and articles about the new era I’m not sure: all I know is, I’m suddenly convinced that the 2010 Doctor is going to be every bit as good as his predecessor. (Even – whisper it gently – better?) I’m genuinely excited about it.

How fickle am I? The minute Tennant and Davies walk out and I’m lauding Smith and Moffat. That’s showbiz.

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