Doctor Who: 60 things we learned from The Writer’s Tale

To end a week celebrating New Who's 10th birthday, here's a bumper list of Doctor Who titbits from Russell T Davies' The Writer's Tale...

We’ve touched on why The Writer’s Tale, the 2008 (expanded in 2010) compendium of correspondence between Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook, deserves a space on your bookshelf here.

In short, The Writer’s Tale is both a screenwriting masterclass and an unparalleled look behind the scenes of new Doctor Who. As well as following the production triumphs and emergencies as the show lurches “from one crisis to another”, it lets you witness story ideas being created in the wild. See pivotal Doctor Who moments tottering unsurely out of Davies’ mind like new-born giraffes and watch them transform into sleek, galloping beasts of majesty! Think of it like a classy David Attenborough doc on storytelling, with bonus David Tennant photos and chat about Tony from Skins.

To conclude a week celebrating ten years since Doctor Who returned to Saturday nights on the BBC, here’s a bumper list of just some of the fun findings contained within The Writer’s Tale’s pages…

Torchwood: the musical and what could have been

1. JK Rowling was asked to write a Doctor Who episode in 2004, but politely declined (well, she did have two Potter books to finish back then). RTD later tried to work the Potterverse into Who in a discarded idea for the 2008 Christmas Special which would be a fantasy alien/magic extravaganza (possibly inspiring CBBC series, Wizards Vs Aliens?) and feature Rowling in the cast. David Tennant wasn’t keen on the idea, worrying that it seemed more like a Blue Peter crossover than a Doctor Who Christmas Special.

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2. The post-Martha companion was originally Penny Carter, a recently jilted journalist whose grandfather was part of an Alien Watch Group. When Catherine Tate jumped at the chance to return as Donna, the Penny plans were scrapped, though a journo character with that name played by Verona Joseph did appear in series four’s Partners In Crime.

3. Bjorn and Benny from ABBA once wanted to write a Torchwood musical.

4. One potential title for Voyage Of The Damned (after Titanic II) was Starship Titanic, but the BBC wasn’t allowed to use it for copyright reasons due to a 1998 computer game by Douglas Adams having the same name.

5. A Doctor Who/Star Trek Enterprise crossover was on the show’s list of plans until Enterprise was axed.

6. The Titanic was originally intended to crash into Buckingham Palace at the end of The Voyage Of The Damned, but the scene was cut for budgetary/story reasons. When the hoo-ha about the 2007 BBC documentary A Year With The Queen broke, leading to the resignation of BBC One controller, Peter Fincham, Davies and Cook reflected that it was just as well the original plans hadn’t gone ahead.

7. When Bernard Cribbins was offered the recurring part of Donna Noble’s granddad Wilf, (replacing the role of her father, Geoff, played by Howard Attfield, who sadly died from cancer in 2007), he initially got the wrong end of the stick and thought he was being offered a Companion role in the TARDIS. A quick phone call sorted all that out, but it’s not a half-bad idea, is it?

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8. Russell Tovey’s Voyage Of The Damned character, Midshipman Frame, was once planned to be a Companion in episodes 4.12 and 4.13, at the end of which he’d die, but Russell Tovey was tied up doing a play.

9. A possible alternative title for the Steven Moffat-scripted episode Forest Of The Dead was apparently A River’s Song Ends. Other potential titles suggested by Davies (in a not at all serious way as you’ll gather from their initials) include: Forest Under CAL’s Kingdom and CAL’s Untimely Node Transmission.

10. After Ten leaves the Noble house after dropping his metacrisis other self off at Bad Wolf Bay and wiping Donna’s memory in Journey’s End, he was originally going to run straight into a Cyberman cliff-hanger, but at Benjamin Cook’s suggestion, it was cut and we were left with David Tennant alone in the rain.

11. To distinguish them from humans, the passengers on board the Titanic in The Voyage Of The Damned would ideally have had gills, but the FX budget didn’t allow. Jewelled bindis on their foreheads was the second option, but that too, fell away.

12. There were originally much bigger plans for the Shadow Proclamation in the series four finale, “Like, Doctor #2 and Donna were going to go back to the Shadow Proclamation and enlist a fleet of Judoon ships! And attack the Medusa Cascade! Blimey! Madness, I know.” It all had to be cut for time and budget reasons.

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13. Originally the Face of Boe died in New Earth. “Old Boe’s demise shifted from New Earth because that was in the draft in which everyone dies, even the patients, and it was miserable as hell for an Episode 1. We’d just been commissioned for series three and I realised how huge that ‘You are not alone’ could be if held back till Gridlock”.

“Fat chance!” dream casting and guest stars

14. Kate Winslet was the first casting thought for the part of River Song in Silence In The Library (and not such a silly one, considering that one of Winslet’s first on-screen appearances was in Russell T Davies’ 1991 sci-fi series, Dark Season.) The wonderful Alex Kingston, as well all know, eventually took the role.

15. Dennis Hopper was in talks to play Max Capricorn in Voyage Of The Damned, but the scheduling didn’t work so the role went to Max Costigan.

16. Kylie Minogue’s Voyage Of The Damned character was originally called Peth, which became Astrid Peth (“Astrid sounds more spacey, more like a futuristic Doctor’s companion. Astra was too obvious, I thought.”)

17. They’ve tried to cast Mackenzie Crook (The Office, The Detectorists, Pirates Of The Carribbean) in Doctor Who numerous times, but the scheduling has never worked. Crook was originally set to play the role of Doctor conspiracy theorist Clive in 2005 episode, Rose, a part that eventually went to Mark Benton.

18. Helen Mirren has turned down Doctor Who in the past, always “very nicely because she’s always too busy”. At one point, Davies was told there was definite interest from Dame Judi Dench to be in the show. “I’d love the Doctor with an older companion,” he wrote, “difficult to do too much running and chasing, but…”

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19. Lee Evans bought along a set of comedy false teeth to play Malcolm in Planet Of The Dead. Davies had to gently talk him out of wearing them.

“Everything leaks”

20. The BBC is “Not Allowed To Lie” according to Davies in The Writer’s Tale, especially in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry. That’s why, when BBC Drama Controller Jane Tranter was asked by The Mirror what truth there was in the rumours about Christopher Eccleston was leaving Doctor Who, she “couldn’t deny it”.

21. Catherine Tate accidentally first broke the news that David Tennant was leaving Doctor Who on the Jonathan Ross BBC Radio 2 show on Saturday the 15th of December 2007, saying about series four that “I think it’s maybe David’s last series”. The BBC refused to comment, and the news was officially announced by Tennant at the National Television Awards ten months later in October 2008.

22. The Daily Mail sniffed out the news that David Tennant was leaving via an August 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company brochure which announced his tenure as Hamlet over the 2008-9 season, blowing the lid on the fact that he was leaving Doctor Who.

23. Tate shouldn’t feel bad for the Jonathan Ross slip above, as then-BBC One Controller Peter Fincham let the secret of her series four casting out in June 2007, while Freema Agyeman was still in the Companion role. In Davies’ 5th of June 2007 email, he wrote: “Peter Fincham walked into a meeting with Catherine Tate today, with loads of executives from Tigers Aspect Productions (a huge London indie) and said, ‘So you’re going to be the new Doctor Who companion?’ Nooo! Jaws dropped. Secret out. All round London.”

24. It took until the 4th of July 2007 though, for The Sun to get wind of Catherine Tate’s casting. The BBC spiked their exclusive by releasing the information to all press outlets at once.

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Behind-the-scenes storytelling titbits

25. RTD predicted that The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Joe Lidster might one day be showrunning Doctor Who. One to watch…

26. The name of Billie Piper’s character was both “the most British name in the world” from a desire to make Doctor Who essentially British, and a “good luck charm” Davies had previously used in his 2001 series Bob And Rose.

27. The idea of Wilf attempting to blind that Dalek using a paintball gun in The Stolen Earth was suggested by Bernard Cribbins himself. (“I’d better not let the other actors know I’m taking requests now” wrote Davies). Wilf’s lines in The End Of Time about being in the parachute regiment in Palestine in 1948 were all based on Cribbins’ real-life experiences during the war.

28. On the subject of taking suggestions, in The Unicorn And The Wasp, David Tennant disagreed with the original ending in which Ten killed the Vespiform by hitting it with a car saying that the Doctor shouldn’t be a murderer. Instead, the creature drowned in a lake.

29. In Voyage Of The Damned, Davies writes that he “…took out the Doctor showing his psychic paper to the Host, because I’m not sure that psychic paper works on robots”. Debate!

30. Back in the 90s, should the opportunity to bring back Doctor Who ever have arisen, Davies already had a first episode planned out in his head, all told from the companion-to-be perspective – a young office cleaner who encounters Autons while alone in a large building at night. The would-be Companion was to have met the Doctor and his first word to her would have been ‘Run!’ (the story also featured an escape-by-window cleaner’s cradle sequence, as later used in Partners In Crime).

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31. In Midnight, the space bus was called the Crusader 50 because it was the 50th episode filmed since the series had started again (after it was moved around the schedule to provide a buffer between the parallel Donna worlds of Turn Left and Forest Of The Dead it wasn’t the 50th broadcast, but still).

32. Track 6 on Mika’s Life In Cartoon Motion album, Any Other World, was Davies’ on-repeat soundtrack for writing Partners In Crime, while Live And Let Die provided the pace Davies wanted to achieve in Journey’s End. Guns N’ Roses or Paul McCartney though? That is the question.

33. If he could go back and change it, Davies would take out the use of ‘fuck’ in the first Torchwood episode “It was trying to set a tone. It was saying ‘Go away kids’ – as if that ever works!” “I won’t do it again on Torchwood” he wrote in 2009. “I don’t think it sits well with sci-fi.”

34. Davies wanted to have a parliament of Daleks making an alliance with the Time Lords in his The End Of Time script, but he agreed to back down because Steven Moffat planned to use them in series five.

35. Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies talk, in their correspondence, about both having “blundered towards the same idea before”. One such example might be one of Davies’ first ideas for the 2008 Christmas Special, The Next Doctor: “Cybermen rising from the grave. We haven’t really done rising from the grave before. Not fully. A Victorian funeral, in the snow, all the mourners and headstones, when hands start reaching up from graves. Cyberhands!” Death In Heaven, anyone?

36. Davies intended the woman from Gallifrey in The End Of Time to be the Doctor’s mother: “The Woman! I like leaving it open, because then you can imagine what you want. I think the fans will say it’s Romana. Or even the Rani. Some might say that it’s Susan’s mother, I suppose. But of course it’s supposed to be the Doctor’s mother.”

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Davies On Ice, Muppets and miscellaneous dinner party gossip

37. Davies was once asked by ITV to compete on ice-skating celebrity talent show Dancing On Ice, “(did I ever tell you, I was asked to be on that? Actually skating! Julie [Gardner] is still laughing, to this day)”

38. The first time Davies met Kylie Minogue, they sang an impromptu duet of Halfway Down The Stairs by Robin the Frog from The Muppet Show.

39. Davies presented a lifetime achievement award to the Chuckle Brothers at the 2008 Children’s Baftas.

40. In May 2007, Davies turned down a meeting with George Lucas about writing for a new Star Wars TV series, “The thought of more years typing ‘INT. SPACESHIP’ and playing with other people’s toys… I mean, no matter how much I love Doctor Who, it’s not mine. I didn’t create this show. Ah well, Lucas might not have liked me anyway. And I can always tell people that I turned him down.”

41. When Davies went to Buckingham Palace to be presented with his OBE, Prince Charles apologised for not agreeing to cameo in Doctor Who and Davies reportedly replied “Never mind that, are those ears real?”.

42. David Tennant went to see The Sound Of Music at the West End with Kylie Minogue in May 2007 “How that didn’t make the tabloids, I’ll never know,” wrote Davies.

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43. Russell T Davies’ parents once helped to abduct a Romanian spy.

44. When filming The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant mooned a paparazzi speedboat circling around Barry Island.  “I’m going to show them my arse” he said, and duly pulled down his pyjama bottoms.

Behind-the-scenes budgets, filming, Woolworths, and David Tennant’s “wobble”

45. Production designer Ed Thomas had approximately £20,000 – 30,000 to spend on the 2007 Christmas Special. By the time he’d costed up to page 67 of Davies’ first script it came to over £87,000. “Oh well, we’ll think of something”, wrote Davies. And they did.

46. When The End Of Time budget didn’t look as though it would stretch to all the visual FX in Davies’ script (including Earth’s entire population turning into John Simm), Davies offered to pay for some of it himself, but it wasn’t allowed according to BBC policy.

47. Doctor Who Petit Filous Frubes (available in Sonic Strawberry) were “the only licensed product that Julie and I were ever unsure about, but that sort of thing can be worth a fortune for the BBC”. The yoghurt snacks turned out to be a major success.

48. Davies and the whole team voted for David Tennant (and not Catherine Tate) to win the Outstanding Drama Performance gong at the National Television Awards in 2008 so that Tennant would be able to make his stepping-down announcement (broadcast live from backstage doing Hamlet) during his acceptance speech at the ceremony. He won, of course.

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49. Billie Piper’s honeymoon put series four filming into disarray. Piper married Laurence Fox on New Year’s Eve 2007, and planned to take the whole of January as a honeymoon, scuppering plans to film Rose Tyler’s returning episodes that month.

50. Filming on the Brandon Estate in Kennington, South East London (which stood in for the Powell Estate, home to Rose and Jackie Tyler), was regularly interrupted by residents swearing at the BBC team, on one memorable occasion calling them “poofs and homosexuals”, on another “bollocks to the lot of yer”.

51. The fall of Woolworths had an impact on the show. There was less money available for the 2009 specials because BBC Worldwide DVD sales were down, and usually, they would go to DVD producers 2Entertain for cash, who in turn would get it from Woolworths, but because of the recession, that source of money dried up.

52. Immediately after the Christmas 2008 special, The Next Doctor, was screened, in the same hotel, one floor above a roomful of journalists, interviews were filmed about Matt Smith’s casting as the real next Doctor to be used in the Smith-announcing Doctor Who Confidential. (“Hilarious! With all those journalists downstairs, missing the scoop!)

53. When the London bus for Planet Of The Dead arrived in Dubai for filming, a cargo container was unfortunately dropped on it, crushing the top floor.

54. RTD was pressured to take a co-writer credit on Waters Of Mars because he was told that his name on scripts attracts guest stars, though he feared it would look strange as he hadn’t taken co-writer credits on all the previous scripts he’d rewritten. “I write the final draft of almost all scripts – except Steven Moffat’s, Matthew Graham’s, Chris Chibnall’s and Stephen Greenhorn’s”.

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55. In December 2008 Wallace And Gromit were used in the BBC Christmas idents. “Why isn’t that Doctor Who?” wrote Davies, “Why isn’t that David  and a TARDIS spinning about? I want that next year. I want the ident! I’m going to start a campaign”. Anyone who remembers David Tennant’s ubiquity on that reindeer-drawn TARDIS the following year will know that the campaign was a success.

56. Despite having always planned to leave after three years in the job, David Tennant reportedly had “a wobble” after Steven Moffat outlined his series five ideas to him. On the 10th of April 2008, Davies wrote, “Steven Moffat has given David the weekend to decide whether he wants to do series five or not. The thing is, David is thinking about it!”. Ultimately, the wobble didn’t take. Tennant told Davies about series five, “It’s genius, seriously absolute genius… but I want to watch it, not be in it”.

57. If you’d been sipping a latte at a Starbucks in Cardiff Bay on the 23rd of May 2007, you’d have overheard some very interesting stuff. Davies, Julie and Phil set up shop outside the coffee shop and received all the series four writers one by one for a total of nine hours of script talk.

58. The Next Doctor press screening was almost cancelled because David Tennant was in hospital with a slipped disc, but because the screening room had already been paid for, and under the Freedom Of Information Act, the BBC would have had to disclose the amount of money lost due to the cancellation, it went ahead without Tennant or guest star David Morrissey.

59. The last thing Davies wrote for Doctor Who wasn’t The End Of Time Part Two, but a competition winner’s sketch for John Barrowman’s BBC Saturday night entertainment show Tonight’s The Night.

60. David Tennant’s last words on set as the Doctor (before his blistering The Day Of The Doctor return) were reportedly, “Bring in the next one! When does he start? Where is he?” immediately after throwing back his head to regenerate, and then finally, “Am I free? Can I walk away?”. He did walk away, and was then brought back on set under the pretences of a green screen reshoot, to receive a set-wide round of applause.

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