Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale review

Have we ever seen a book that's gone into writing for a huge science fiction show in such depth as this? Absolutely not, says Simon...

By Russell T Davies and Benjamin CookEbury Press/BBC Books£30

Half way through Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale, a substantial tome that charts Russell T Davies writing and managing series four of the show as well as a pair of specials, you’re simply left wondering how the programme ever made it to air.

Notwithstanding the comparison that within one week of filming the first revived series they were several further weeks behind, there are simply moments recounted here where you expect the whole house to come crashing down. From the 2008 Christmas special that nearly never was, to scripts coming in so far over deadline you wonder how they all had time to turn things around, a picture is presented of an often-perilous juggernaut, with the show never far away from another seemingly unbeatable challenge.

But then this is very much a warts and all tale of a year scribing and overseeing Doctor Who, and while at times it leaves you wondering just what was cut out, you can’t help but be gratified at the candidness of what was left in.

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The book is structured around, and presented as, e-mails between Davies and Benjamin Cook. It takes a little while to get going, but soon Davies is knee-deep in trying to sort out Voyage Of The Damned (originally named Starship Titanic, Douglas Adams fans), dealing not just with what needs to be put on the page and why, but all the associated challenges such as who they can get to join the cast. Dennis Hopper agreed, for instance, to sign up, but was eventually turned away basically because – as Davies keeps reminding us – the show comes first, and there was no convincing way to slot him in.

Even early on in the book – which extends to over 500 pages – the sheer weight of the workload on Davies’ shoulders comes across, and he’s not afraid to be very candid about it. His plans, for instance, to pen the opener for Torchwood’s second season keep getting put back, then he takes a story idea back from a commissioned writer to give it another try, and eventually he has to all but admit defeat.

Davies isn’t afraid to present this, nor the highs and lows of his process. At times, he comes across like the student who keeps missing an essay deadline (that’s not supposed to be disingenuous, either: how many students do you know run the BBC’s primetime golden property?), and at times it’s just as illuminating to see the times the e-mails between Davies and Cook were actually sent. It’s also clear that there’s an army of heroes behind the scenes, none more so it seems than Phil Collinson and Julie Gardner, with the latter’s mantra of ‘Hold the line’ arguably underpinning much of what you read here.

Of course, the Doctor Who titbits are very welcome. So there are the Cybermen in the Tardis at the end of Journey’s End. The origin segment of Davros that got cut from the final script due to special effects budget issues. Mickey’s future in Torchwood. And then the assistant that never was, Penny, who was eventually usurped by Catherine Tate’s Donna. There’s a wealth of material such as this, and we’d defy any hardened Doctor Who fan to not soak it up.

Aside from creating the programme itself, it’s also fascinating to read about the world that exists around it. The BBC’s ability to co-ordinate a timed press announcement is well documented, and it’s also interesting to see how the ripples of the BBC’s fall-out with the Queen a year or two back manages to impact the show.

And then there’s Steven Moffat, some of whose early e-mails in discussing and ultimately accepting the role of show chief are presented. Moffat reveals that he’s already working on his first script for series five even while series four is still broadcasting,

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The pair also discuss some of Davies’ earlier projects, such as Queer As Folk and Bob And Rose, and how those feed into his writing. There’s also the impact of his workload on the people around him, and on Davies himself. His local Tesco, it seems, sell an awful lot of cigarettes, usually very early in the morning, while everyone who checks out the online Doctor Who forums rarely seems to come back with a smile on their face.

Outside of the e-mail conversations, there are several other inclusions. The most interesting is Davies’ scripts, presented immediately after he wrote them and before the necessary curtailing for effects, budget, time and tone. We can’t think of another book that brings you into the genesis of such high profile scripts before, and it’s one of the many reasons why The Writer’s Tale is arguably the geek book of the year.

There’s also a lavish collection of photography from in front of and behind the camera, as well as Davies’ own illustrations. Where appropriate, e-mails from other parties are brought in, such as James Moran’s response to his rewritten script to The Fires Of Pompeii. It does feel as though Cook and Davies have tried to present as complete a picture as possible here.

The bits that don’t quite gel? It’s inevitable, given the reliance on raw e-mails for much of the book’s meat, that occasionally the discussion veers into areas of less interest. Davies and Cook, for instance, spend some time discussing the merits of Skins, which, on re-reading, does assess why and when it works as a piece of writing and drama, but it does feel nonetheless as a distraction from the thrust of the book (even if there’s a good argument that it’s just as central as the rest of the discussion). The vast expanses of script, too, sometimes leaves you thirsting for a little more interjection and discussion.  Plus, if you weren’t a fan of RTD before reading it, this isn’t going to change your mind. Truth is, we doubt he’d want you to.

Yet these are ridiculously minor quibbles, in a book that genuinely feels like it lifts the lid on the writing of one of the biggest television shows in the world. Davies describes it early on as the kind of book about writing that he’d like to read, and we suspect that there are many who follow over the next few years who will feel exactly the same. For this is, at best, a riveting insight into not just a terrific television show, but also a modern day television writer, with all the insecurities, highs and lows that go with the territory.

Whether budding screenwriter or simply a Doctor Who enthusiast, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale justifies its heavy asking price comfortably (although some savvy online shopping can cut that significantly), and you suspect will still be referred to and talked about a good decade or two into the future.

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Over to you, Mr Moffat…




5 out of 5