BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Who – The Writer's Tale

Authors: Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Publisher: BBC Books • 512 pages • £25.00

ISBN: 978-1-846-07571-1 • 25 September

Rating:

You can douse all the other books about new Who in lighter fuel and spark up your Zippo – this is all you need. It’s the only one that opens a door into the brain of the series’ showrunner.

It’s essentially the world’s longest interview. Hewn from a year-long exchange of emails between Russell T Davies and trusted journo Ben Cook, it records every up-all-night scripting session, and every flash of inspiration on the way to Tesco. It comes as close as a book can to answering that deathless question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Fascinatingly, it also captures the paths not taken: Mark Gatiss’s World War II-era episode, with monsters on the loose in the Natural History Museum; Dennis Hopper playing Mr Copper in “Voyage of the Damned” (yes, he really was offered that role!); the phantom existence of Penny Carter, the Northern companion who never was.

Naturally, the emails have been filtered and edited, but this still feels surprisingly uncensored for an official tie-in book. Take the chapter which discusses online fan criticism: it’s titled “BASTARDS”. You might understand why when you read about Helen Raynor’s reaction to browsing the forums: “She was literally shaking afterwards. Like she’d been physically assaulted”. Davies also breaks his “never criticise the old series” rule (describing Sylvester McCoy’s debut as “a deep, dark trough”) and clarifies the extent of his “script polishing” – often a 60% rewrite, sometimes almost 100%.

Other miscellaneous things we learn include:
* Davies was asked to meet with George Lucas to discuss writing for the Star Wars TV series – he decided to decline.
* He was also asked to appear on Dancing On Ice!
* “The Shakespeare Code” was meant to include a swordfight scene, but a stuntman was hit in the eye with a sword during filming.
* Ianto was going to die in Torchwood season two, not Owen – the scripts were changed at the very last minute.
* The first idea for the season four opener was a story about wild dogs called Vorlox coming through a portal from another world, but Davies decided it was “too Primeval”.
* An earlier idea for “Partners in Crime” featured botox injections that cause alien transformation.
* Episode eight of season four was originally planned as a Tom MacRae script in which the Doctor goes live on Most Haunted.
* Midshipman Frame from “Voyage of the Damned” nearly came back in “The Stolen Earth” – as did a young Margaret Slitheen (Annette Badland even recorded a line).
* Davies also wrote a scene showing how a young Davros became horribly injured.
(SPOILER AHEAD!)
* As originally shot, “Journey’s End” ended with two Cybermen looming up behind the Doctor.

It’s a brutally honest book, and the self-portraiture is not always flattering. It should help to dispel the popular misconception of Davies as some kind of big gay Laughing Cavalier, the man forever booming, “Marvellous!” on Doctor Who Confidential. There’s more to him than the PR game-face mistaken by some for smug self-satisfaction. Here, we see other sides to him: the procrastinating writer, consumed with self-doubt; the man who logs onto a Who forum to “see how shit I am”; the exec ruthless enough to dump that Gatiss script (a year’s work) without a twinge of empathy.

It’s not perfect – it would have benefited from a little more ruthless editing. And it’s not a manual, like Robert McKee’s Story: it won’t tell you to how to write, only how one man writes. All the same, by demystifying the process, showing that writing isn’t magical but the result of (often agonising) hard graft, it becomes inspirational. For anyone considering writing professionally, it’s a vital purchase.

Ian Berriman

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