The Writer’s Tale

I recently read the inelegantly named Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook. Davies (RTD) is the man behind the recent revival of Doctor Who, taking it from embarrassing forgotten history to pop-cultural behemoth. Cook is the young Doctor Who Magazine journo who sparks up an email correspondence about RTD’s writing process. The book collects this correspondence.

It’s a mighty tome, nearly 700 pages, and it’s fascinating reading. I raced through it. There’s a lot that’s great about it, as RTD writes expressively about his creative process, how his ideas come together, and where the final product comes from.

Although the book claims to be about the writing process, and that’s what I’ll talk about below, most of its length is about the production of the Doctor Who television show and all the challenges and problems involved. The writing focus fades away after the first hundred-fifty pages, never to return; the writing process becomes a scaffold to talk about what it’s like making Doctor Who in the UK in the late 00s. While I think the writing bits are great and useful for any writer, the rest of the book is really of interest only to people curious about TV production or about Doctor Who. It’s sold a lot of copies, so there’s clearly plenty of people in that category, but the writing sadly becomes less important as the book proceeds.

RTD’s time on the show has not been universally praised. His stories have been criticized for being over-stuffed, poorly structured and too reliant on deus ex machina endings. In this book you can see all of those flaws and limitations at work. For example, the sense that RTD doesn’t do endings well is clearly because he writes in sequence and usually doesn’t have a definite climax in mind.

You even get RTD’s defence of some of these flaws. Memorably, acknowledging criticisms that his scripts don’t develop plots effectively but just throw in incident and then race on to the next thing, he says (p679):

What I’m saying is, I can see how annoying that looks. I can see how maddening it must be, for some people. Especially if you’re imposing really classical script structures, and templates, and expectations on that episode, even unconsciously. I must look like a vandal, or a kid, or an amateur. No wonder some people hate what I write. Of course, I’m going to win this argument. (Did you guess?) Because the simple fact is: all those things were planned. All of them were my choice. They’re not lazy, clumsy or desperate. They’re chosen. I can see more traditional ways of telling those stories, but I’m not interested. I think the stuff that you gain from writing in this way – the shock, the whirlwind, the freedom, the exhilaration – is worth the world. I’ve got this sort of tumbling, freewheeling stule that somersaults along, with everything happening now – not later, not before, but now now now. I’ve made a Doctor Who that exists in the present tense.

However, most of these problems are not really dealt with and Cook isn’t interested in going on the attack about them. This is a shame in lots of ways. I would love to see Davies defend himself over the decision at the very end of his final episodes to marry off the two black characters in his ensemble, apparently for no other reason than they’re both black. But this isn’t even mentioned in the correspondence.

I think the book also does a good job showing Davies’ strengths as a writer – his sure-footed dialogue and ability to write to the constraints of TV production, his ability to edit and strengthen the work of other writers, and most of all his gift for great moments. Time and again you see how his ideas begin with one or two key scenes that he is confident will make great telly, and then he develops a script around them. And they are truly great moments. The revival episode of Doctor Who, “Rose”, finished with such a moment that had clearly been in Davies’ head for a long time. I wrote about it five years ago: “The last shot of the episode – that last one second – it just about made me cry.” This bit:

The Writer’s Tale has a website. Download RTD’s scripts!

6 thoughts on “The Writer’s Tale”

  1. There’s a kick-ass episode of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe that’s entirely interviews with TV writers about the process of writing. RTD, Graham Linehan (IT Crowd, Father Ted etc), the dudes who wrote Peep Show (Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain), plus Tony Jordan and Paul Abbott (Hustle, Coro, State of PLay etc).

    50 minutes of writing-for-TV and writing-in-general awesome.

    Part one is here:

  2. It’s interesting now seeing several Steven Moffat episodes how so many of the marks of RTD-edited shows are gone. While the episodes aren’t as reliant on the “moment” I’m finding that they stand up much better to rewatching (actually most of them REQUIRE rewatching).

    Plus so far I’ve yet to had to scream out “that makes no sense!”.

  3. I’m reminded of the struggle between the great classical tragedians. Euripides was the RTD of his day – he just wanted to exalt in the moment, and while he was not successful in his time, more of his work survives than either of his main rivals in the eyes of history. We haven’t seen the final word on whether RTD really did anything good – I think that will be more obvious in 5 to 10 years time, when we’re not as caught up in the moment and the joy of the shiny/new.

  4. Matt – yes, great Screen Wipe, thanks!
    Andrew – agreed absolutely. The different rhythm is in there on a very deep level. I appreciate good plottery, so it makes me happy.
    Steve – of course. Will try and remember to bring to next Bliss Stage if not before.
    alasdair – Hmm. Well, I think the juries in on “anything” good – he brought back Doctor Who and made it a huge popular success, which is pretty hard to argue with. But I agree that anything beyond that will take a while to settle. Who fandom is fascinating in how rapidly the generally accepted opinion of a given era of the show goes up or down.

  5. That quote from RTD is fascinating for a couple of reasons.

    First, and most simple, “It’s not actually broken because I broke it on purpose” is not an argument-winner. If something’s bad on purpose, that doesn’t magically make it good.

    Also, telling stories that happen “in the present tense” is not mutually exclusive with good storytelling. RTD has not disregarded conventional story structures and replaced them with anything else; he’s just told stories in a sloppy manner.

    I wonder if he equates his own joy at surprising himself, with an audience’s joy at being surprised? Are there any writers who don’t get to a point where they think that because something they’ve written isn’t surprising to themselves anymore, it isn’t surprising full-stop?

    Making the story up as he goes along is hardly an excuse for writing stories that just plain don’t add up, anyway. Alan Moore made up Watchmen as he went along, and that’s often held up as an example of first-rate story structure.

    I don’t actually want to bash RTD too much because I genuinely enjoyed a lot of his stories. I just think that it’s a bit of a cop-out to respond to valid criticism by saying “I meant to do that!”

    Anyway, the main thing I get out of this is that Russell T. Davies probably needs a good script editor. 🙂

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