Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale - a review

Oooh, that sounds posh. Once upon a time, when I worked on magazines, I used to write reviews all the time. Not so much in recent years.

I knew I had to buy this book, in its glorious hard-back, heavyweight and glossy paper configuration. It just exudes quality. But that's just judging a book by its cover (and production values).

I am a fan of Dr Who and my watching goes back to the second story in 1963 - the Zarbi made an impression on me. Not an obsessive fan, you understand, just someone who has enjoyed watching and would go out of his way to watch. (Except towards the end of the original run.)

Of course, Russell T Davies's revival of the series has created whole new generations of fans, recreated "appointment TV" and revivified family watching on a Saturday evening.

But these things we knew. And I've wasted valuable minutes telling you things you already knew.

So what is this book? It is the e-mail (and occasionally mobile phone text) correspondence between RTD and Benjamin Cook (journalist) through a year of the production of new Dr Who's season 4. It reveals the trials and tribulations of the show runner and chief writer, with excerpts of the scripts as they evolve; views of the production process that are seldom seen elsewhere; and a personal study of RTD as a writer.

Spoiler alert: If you don't want to know what happens in the Christmas 2008 special do not read this book. There are references to it in various places but mostly at the end. There is also some stuff on the special episodes for 2009 and Stephen Moffat's 2010 series (but not much).

I won't say this is an easy read. It's over 500 pages of fairly dense text. Though it is interspersed with illustrative photos from the episodes and scripts being discussed, it's tough going at times.

And heartbreaking in places. Such as when the actor who played Donna's Dad dies during filming; And if you cried at the end of the fourth season you'll cry again as you read the Bad Wolf Bay scene as it goes through three or four different versions until it becomes "true".

Does that sound pretentious? If there's one thing to learn about RTD's writing process it's the truth of the script. Or, less pretentiously, does it make sense? Are the characters obeying the plot or being themselves? RTD isn't pretentious at all, but he knows his way around a script. He hasn't read any scriptwriting books (he says) but you'll find that he agrees with many of them.

Which is good news for those of us who have read some. It will also tell you which of them are the better ones - because they agree with him.

As an "as-yet-unproduced" screenwriter I read it from the viewpoint of how useful this is to me. I haven't bothered to mention the missed deadlines, the writing through the night, the writer tortured by self-doubt and such like. But it does make the story more human.

But this book is unique. It's a year-long interview with one of the most effective, and most powerful, TV writers in the UK. If you think you want to write for TV then you are missing a fundamental piece of research by not reading it: Honestly? You'd be an idiot not to read it.

In his "Making it as a Screenwriter" Adrian Mead recommends "It’s essential that you constantly update your skills and knowledge of the industry". And there is nowhere that you'll get the information revealed in this book, short of firsthand experience and even then it would be better to read to prepare yourself.

Give yourself an early Christmas present, or make sure that somebody buys it for you.

If you're serious about TV writing you must read this book. If you just happen to like Dr Who, then it's a lovely book anyway.

Get it here. Buying from the big link will give me a commission if you buy, using the text link won't.

Oh yes and I was just reading the reviews on Amazon (after writing mine) and I forgot to mention that many of the illustrations are cartoons drawn by RTD. Damn him, he's a brilliant cartoonist as well! And this book is definitely not for kids - need a 15 tag I would say.

What's on the turntable? "King of the Mountain" by Kate Bush from "Aerial". I have all her albums, this is undoubtedly the very best (so far). Though, in truth, I love them all. Even the less popular ones (like "Red Shoes") always have amazing tracks.

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