Doctor Who The Writer’s Tale: Benjamin Cook interview

The co-author of the book that peels back the curtain of Russell T Davies’ era on Doctor Who, we chat to Benjamin Cook about The Writer’s Tale...

In case you missed our review, we rated the updated version of Russell T Davies’ and Benjamin Cook’s Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale as likely to be one of the very best books of the year already. You’ll find a link to the review at the bottom.

As part of the promotion for the book, we got to fire some questions at co-author Benjamin Cook. And here’s how it went…

How far through your e-mail conversations did it become clear that The Writer’s Tale would turn into a book?

The correspondence was supposed to last a few weeks. A couple of months tops. It was supposed to be a magazine article, and cover the writing of one of Russell’s TV episodes – Voyage Of The Damned or Partners In Crime. Two-and-a-half years later, we were still e-mailing! You know how it is. I think I knew after the first few days that I might have too much material for a magazine article. We’d exceeded any likely word-count by forty-fold. But it was a good six months or so before it occurred to me that maybe I should back-up my inbox! If my laptop had crashed five-and-half months in, we’d have been fucked.

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Once you’d embarked on the project, was there a point where you felt the brakes might have to put on it?

Not really. In the beginning, I think I worried that Russell would get bored, or find the e-mails too distracting, or intrusive. But that didn’t happen. We e-mailed most days – several times a day, sometimes – for two-and-a-half years. Last February, I was e-mailing Russell, from my iPhone, in the middle of the Margham Desert, in Dubai, in a sandstorm. “The schedule is in tatters! CODE RED! ABORT! ABORT!” If the correspondence could survive that, it could survive pretty much anything.

The BBC is often very protective of its properties. Did it give you much of a free line to discuss the show? Did it ask for much to be taken out?

We removed some of the swearing, because there was far too much by any reasonable person’s standards, but not because the BBC asked us to. In both books – the original and The Final Chapter – we took out the occasional spoiler for upcoming episodes, but nothing major. Um, and that’s it. Hand on heart, the BBC never asked for anything to be taken out.

Often Russell’s e-mails give the impression that you’re a sounding board for his ideas. Is that how you saw it, or is that how you felt? Did you feel awkward, particularly when you weren’t keen on some of the ideas he was putting across? Because it seemed that the relationship between the two of you changed as the book progressed: from quite light banter and conversation about assorted shows at first, to really quite focussed discussions, particular in the Final Chapter material?

I had planned to be Invisible Ben. An impartial observer. Especially once Russell started sending me extracts of script – whatever he’d written each day. I wanted to resist saying what I thought, or I was worried the whole project would come crashing down around our ears.

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In the event, I stayed strong through the writing of most of Series Four, but faltered on Journey’s End. Russell’s original ending had the Cybermen pop up in the TARDIS – that had even been shot, I think – when I plucked up the courage to say, “Actually, sorry, that ending’s rubbish.” I don’t think I actually used the word “rubbish”. I was more tactful. Oh. Hang on, I’ve just checked – I did use the word “rubbish”.

But don’t you think Journey’s End worked better without another ‘What? What?! WHAT?!!’ cliffhanger? It didn’t need it. The Doctor, alone in the TARDIS, mourning the loss of Donna Noble, that’s a far sadder, braver, more affecting climax, isn’t it? – and Russell had written it brilliantly. It was magnificent. Why ruin it with Cybermen? And Russell agreed.

I thought he might tell me to piss off, but he didn’t. He said, “Hand on heart, when you get a good note, it chimes with something you’re already thinking.” After that, in our second year’s worth of e-mails, I commented on stuff a bit more. Yeah, a sounding board. A little less objectivity. But not much less – because Russell is the Dennis Potter Award-winning scriptwriter, and I’m not. If I’d been making suggestions constantly, I’d have got it right, oh, like once in a hundred times. The other 99, Russell would have known better, and been ten steps ahead of me, so I tried to stay impartial, faltering just very occasionally. I mean, Russell never did bring back the Garm. I asked. Every episode, I asked.

From the reader’s side of the fence, it appears that we get very much a warts and all look at the writing process of Doctor Who in particular. Was there any fallout after the book was first published, and did you find yourself slicing much out? How did reactions to the first book shape the extra material that you included this time around? 

The main fallout was that people seemed to like the first book – not everyone, never everyone, but most people did – so we were reasonably confident that they wouldn’t baulk at another 350 pages’ worth. Except for Private Eye. Private Eye didn’t like The Final Chapter, but I didn’t care. I was just thrilled to be reviewed in Private Eye. Dream come true!

I suppose the other fallout from the first book was that the new edition had to acknowledge that we’d actually been published. We couldn’t ignore the fact that we were on a book tour, or being serialised in The Times, or appearing on Richard And Judy. That would have been silly. And some of these things fed back into Russell’s scripts. Even Minnie’s malfunctioning camera in The End of Time, when she poses for a photo with the Doctor. “No, it’s working, just press the button on top!” That was inspired by our book signings and the constant stream of people whose cameras never, ever worked at the crucial moment.

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As a Doctor Who fan yourself, did you find it hampered your enjoyment of the shows when you sat down to watch them, given that you knew so much about them?

Anything I lost out on when the episodes aired was made up for by getting to read the scripts before anyone else. That cushioned the blow.

Given that so much time is spent covering up Doctor Who secrets in advance in the book, it must be odd that you knew so much before everyone else?

I just had to keep track of what had been announced and what hadn’t. If I’d accidentally let slip something secret and important live on BBC Breakfast, I’d have been crucified. And then sacked.

Are there any plans to chart the Steven Moffat era in anything like the same way?

Not at the moment. Well, not by me. Maybe Steven’s e-mailing someone else! But look, e-mailing me isn’t a prerequisite for taking the job of showrunner. I’m not handed down from head writer to head writer, like a soup recipe. Or a genetic disorder. The Writer’s Tale sort of came about by accident, really, and it was quite an organic process, at a time when Russell already had three series under his belt. But I enjoyed interviewing Steven on stage a few months ago at the Cheltenham Screenwriter’s Festival… so maybe I should start e-mailing him in the run-up to his fourth series, in 2013!

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Is there anyone else you’d like to tackle a project such as this with?

Matt Smith would be good. The Actor’s Tale. Or The Doctor’s Tale! That would be amazing.

Is it likely that we’ll see a third book as Russell takes his work toAmerica? Have you kept the correspondence going?

No plans for a third book. Sorry. Despite what I said about this correspondence surviving sandstorms, nuclear fall-outs and God knows what, we finally took a break from e-mailing when Russell left Doctor Who, and the country. Well, we had to step back one day, and that seemed like a natural cut-off point. But we do still e-mail each other now and then. I mean, who else is going to update him on the new series of Skins?

What would you like people to most take out of the book? 

It’s funny, I keep getting Facebook messages from students – a couple of lecturers, too! – who tell me that The Writer’s Tale is now on the recommended text for their media degree or English degree, or a set text on their scriptwriting course! How brilliant is that? And bizarre?! I mean, it has the Doctor Who logo on it! There are students, at actual universities, studying Adipose, Jackie Tyler, and Midshipman Frame in their seminars. Well, good for them. I’m still waiting for my honorary doctorate.

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Seriously, I think The Writer’s Tale is a great book for anyone who’s ever tried to write anything, or thought about writing something – a script, a novel, a short story, a poem. Steven said, “If you still want to be a writer after reading this book, you probably will be.” And I think he’s right. The Writer’s Tale shows you how hard it is, sat on your own at four in the morning, staring at a blank screen, deadlines looming. Writing is fucking hard, and The Writer’s Tale isn’t afraid to say so. Equally, I bet most people pick up The Writer’s Tale because they want an entertaining read, a bit of a laugh, colourful characters and some fun gossip – so that, more than anything, is what I hope people take out of it. Yeah, or your money back! (They’re not getting their money back.)

Finally, can you tell us one thing that you know about the next series of Doctor Who that we don’t?

Ha, ha, ha – no.

Benjamin Cook, thank you very much!

Doctor Who The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter is out now. Our review is here.

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