Competition and Review: Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter

Rusty tells you what making Doctor Who is like and your chance to win a copy

Doctor Who - The Writer's Tale: The Final ChapterAuthors: Russell T Davies, Benjamin Cook
Price: £16.99 (Amazon price: £11.04)
ISBN: 978-1-846-07861-3
Pages: 704
Publisher: BBC Books
Published: January 14th (that’s tomorrow, baby)

Writing’s not easy. It’s very hard. Ask a writer. Go on. Any writer. They’ll tell you about it at length. Really quite absurd length.

Journalist Benjamin Cook asked Russell T Davies how hard writing is, some time just before the launch of the third series of Doctor Who in February 2007, and the resulting email and text correspondence lasted, well, years. But in a radical move, Cook and Davies decided to turn all that correspondence into a book, and thus Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale was born.

Since then, Russell T Davies has continued to tell Benjamin Cook just how hard writing is, and the additional 300 pages or so of correspondence have been collected together and added to the original book to produce Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter. This not only continues Davies’ insights into writing for Doctor Who, as well as Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and indeed television in general, but also looks at the politics of television, the nature of television production, how PR and the press work, and more.

And if you keep reading this exciting review, you’ll be able to win a copy of it. How’s that for fun?

Stretching to 704 pages, including index for handy access, this is possibly the longest ‘final chapter’ in human history. It’s spread over two parts – the original Writer’s Tale followed by the collected correspondence which continued over the course of the production of The Sarah Jane Adventures – series two/three, Torchwood: Children of Earth, the four specials this year, the publication of The Writer’s Tale and Rusty’s eventual departure and handover to Steven Moffat.

Although I’m sure there’s been polishing here and there, this is a pretty unexpurgated collection of emails, covering everything from Rusty’s deep love of Russell Tovey through to exchanges with The Mill about CGI work and lunches with Catherine Tate; there are also excerpts from scripts that did get made as well as some that didn’t. So whoever you are, you’re bound to be able to take at least something away with you from this, provided you do at least have some interest in either writing or Doctor Who.

You might find yourself skipping over large chunks because you’re really not that interested in Charlie Hunnam’s arse but you are in how Dennis Hopper nearly made it into Voyage of the Damned – or you might skip over how Dennis Hopper nearly made it into Voyage of the Damned but not over Charlie Hunnam’s arse. I’m sure there’ll be a broad church of readers here.

For me, though, the most fascinating parts of the book are

  1. The writing ‘revelations’
  2. The production compromises
  3. How Rusty writes scripts
  4. What Rusty did but we didn’t know he did it

Writing revelations
Now, if you write at all – even a blog or articles for magazines – and you write copiously and at a reasonable standard, more or less everything Rusty tells you about what writing’s like will ring true to you: the horror of deadlines, trying to find ideas, sources of inspiration, trying to structure well, knowing when something is awful and you’re going to have to ditch large chunks of it, how ideas evolve and combine with new ideas, the crippling self-doubt and so on.

If you’ve ever tried to write fiction, it’ll all strike home even more and the book is dotted with useful insights, in particular, about what TV writers often do wrong. Unfortunately, there’s no handy bit in the index to make these easier to find. Which is sad, because there are very few books out there that deal with TV writing in so informative way.

So, if you have any interest in writing for television – or want to be put off it straight away – get this book.

The production compromises
Anyone who’s ever been interested in television in a serious way knows how much of what we see on the screen is a combination of luck, accident, compromise and collaboration. Almost never do producers, writers and directors set out from the beginning to produce what you see on screen: they start off with something else. The Writer’s Tale demonstrates that very clearly what you see on-screen with Doctor Who is the result of a whole combination of events, many of them outside the production team’s control. Whether you like nu-Who or not, by the time you’ve finished the book, you’ll realise just how much work went into making it at least and that maybe the production team shared some of your concerns, too, but things just went a bit pear-shaped.

The list of horrific compromises – and sometimes fortuitous events – is long. Martha was originally going to appear at the end of the second series of The Sarah Jane Adventures but Sweet FA’s defection to Law and Order meant that she was replaced by The Brigadier at the last minute. Noel Clarke bailed on Torchwood: Children of Earth just a few weeks before the read through – and he was supposed to be in episodes four and five. A Northern lass called Penny was originally going to be the Doctor’s companion during series four and the Doctor was going to love her like he loved Rose – David Jason might even have been her dad. But fortunately, a chance chat between Catherine Tate and Jane Tranter meant that Rusty found out Catherine wanted to come back and Donna became the companion for series four instead.

Sometimes sh*t happens, but sometimes wonderful things do, too, and The Writer’s Tale shows you the whole ugly-pretty mess. It’s also worth noting that a whole load of things that might be happening under the reign of Steven Moffat might well have been instigated by Rusty – that World War 2 script looks like it’s been hanging around for a while, for example, but got shunted out the way in series four because of promises to Freema Agyeman among others (assuming that’s Mark Gatiss’s that is).

How Rusty writes scripts
Everyone has different styles of writing, and whether you love Rusty’s writing or hate it, he has a very distinctive style. What comes out of the book clearly is how he writes, what building blocks he starts with, how he assembles them and so on.

Now, if you hate Rusty, you can see from this the cause of all the problems: how he gets big ideas and skips the pre-amble to them that might have made them work better; how everything’s left to the last minute so sometimes the idea isn’t properly formed when it hits the screen and so on. The ending of Torchwood: Children of Earth has been much criticised because it seems to come out of nowhere and the sacrifice of Jack’s grandson is somewhat unnecessary. Rusty admits he put so much thought into the previous episodes, that the last episode didn’t get enough attention from him. And when you consider some of the alternative ideas that could have been used (an anti-puberty drug), you’ll be glad he got at least that far in the planning stage.

But when you look at just how much pressure is on him throughout, holidays cancelled, etc, you can understand that a lot of the time, it’s probably the best anyone could do in the time available with the resources they had.

And if you love Rusty, you can see all the things that make his scripts great as well: his hatred of jargon and explanations, unnatural dialogue, the lack of emotions in old Who, his focus on character, his humour and so on. It’s all there

You can hate the episodes, but at least you can understand and sympathise; or you can love the episodes, but see how things could have been better. It’s illuminating.

What Rusty did but we didn’t know he did it
Well, if you read the first one you probably knew at least some of these things, but

  1. Rusty was responsible for big chunks of Human Nature/Family of Blood
  2. He’s a very good rewriter of scripts. Part of James Moran’s original Fires of Pompeii script is included, along with Rusty’s rewrite, and Moran’s script is really very good; Rusty’s almost total rewrite really lifts it incredibly, though.
  3. A lot of the ideas for series two of Torchwood were Rusty’s. He was even going to write the first episode – the blowfish in a sports car was his idea – and originally he planned for Ianto to be killed and brought back, before Owen was eventually selected for death and rebirth.
  4. Martha only lasting a season then returning in future episodes and other series was planned before season three had even finished.
  5. Rusty probably should have had co-credits on a lot of the scripts, he did so much rewriting
  6. He used to go to Outpost Gallifrey – now Gallifrey Base – a lot when he was depressed about his work. I would argue that’s ‘contra-indicated’. And although he would disagree, I would argue it’s also very, very easy not to go to Gallifrey Base. Really, it is.

In fact, if you’re looking for a list of revelations, either read the book or read this list from SFX.

In conclusion
I can’t quite say this is “un-put-down-able” because it isn’t. The huge completist nature of the endeavour means this is probably something for dipping into, reading chunks of, re-reading, folding corners over, making notes about and so on. If you don’t like Rusty (or even Benjamin Cook for some reason – why? What’s he ever done to you?), you will end up screaming at the book in hatred at various points – but you’ll probably end up thinking he’s not quite the man you thought he was, since he’s not the arrogant talentless hack that many would have him be. He really isn’t.

It is, however, of real interest to Doctor Who fans, writers, would-be writers and anyone interested in TV production in Britain. If you’ve already got the first book, there is much of further interest, although more for those interested in the day-to-day details of making Who and co, rather than those who want further writing tips.

On the whole, recommended, although maybe just a little bit too completist for its own good.

Yes, I’m done with my review copy, so I’m going to pass it on to someone else who might want it. If you leave a comment below, you’ll automatically be entered into the utterly random prize draw, and on Monday 18th January 2010, I’ll use the good old Internet random number generator to find out who’s won the copy. European, US and Canadian entrants only (yes, I am willing to post it to you air mail if someone in North America wins).

I promise it’s still in pristine condition.

  • Matt M

    Wonder what the chances are of a similar book focusing on the Moffat years?
    I came away from the book (the original version) with a real respect for RTD – no matter what you think about his writing (and I’m a fan – despite its flaws) the man not only helped bring back Doctor Who but seems to really have put his heart into promoting it and keeping people (including the BBC) excited about it.

  • Thanks for the review. I have the first book and was umming and ahhhing about whether to invest in the next 300 pages. However, having seen one of the new photos in it recently, I don’t think I have a choice really!
    The first one was a damned good read. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelations and have never been able to look at Russell Tovey in quite the same way since!

  • MediumRob

    “I thoroughly enjoyed the revelations and have never been able to look at Russell Tovey in quite the same way since! ”
    How did you look at him before?

  • I bought the first one, so I’m not keen on buying this one – but as it was probably the best thing Rusty ever wrote, I’ll take a plunge on winning your copy, Rob 🙂

  • It’s my birthday on Friday, can I claim my £5

  • Mark Carroll

    Thank you for such a complete review — it’s certainly interesting to learn how little the end result can resemble the original intent. Kind of like my cooking.

  • Leaving my draw comment here – I never got the chance to buy the original, and it sounds useful for writing purposes and intriguing for fandom purposes. Granted, some of the more bonkers Torchwood fans will use it for ulterior purposes, but that’s their game.
    Great review!

  • Leslie

    I’ve only recently learned of this book, but it sounds like quite the insider’s look into the process of writing and producing television. Might have to pick it up…

  • I loved the first version which I got out of the library. No sign of the revised version on the catalogue yet so fingers crossed for your review copy :).
    Who was going to play Penny???

  • MediumRob

    “Who was going to play Penny???”
    [Miss X]. That’s all he calls her. He bumps into her at one point and had to avoid telling her how great she’d be as Penny. I’m guessing Sheridan Smith since her career is soaring but he doesn’t say

  • Thanks Rob. It was very niggling!

  • David

    As much as I’ve caviled about Big Russell’s approach to Who, and some of the decisions when it comes to the outlier shows (series 1 and 2 of Torchwood really didn’t work well; Children Of Earth, however, was gripping, with some some exceptional moments and some not so good — Ianto’s death being a flop, I think) the truth is that he’s brought Who back to the limelight, and great success, and created two successful outlier series in Torchwood and Sarah Jane (albeit the latter based on a character created decades before, and a third attempt at getting Lis Sladen into her own series.)
    I’m interested in reading his approach to process and production; I already know some of the pitfalls and ills lightly mentioned in the review, as I’ve worked in television production as a writer (albeit in the US) and it’s a bear under the best of circumstances and the 7th circle of Hell under most. As much as I want to smack Davies at times (especially for his overuse of “brilliant!”), he’s undeniably of interest. I’d meant to read the original verson of this book, but I’m glad there was a delay.
    I won’t be watching the new Doctor, mind you.

  • Tracy

    I really enjoyed the original edition and plan to purchase the revision at some point … real life is a bit full at the moment so I have not gotten around to it as yet.
    Thanks for your assessment. It does sound like the new bits are worth the price for me at least.
    I very much agree with your notion regarding what the reader might get out of TWT. Those of us who adore RTD warts and all, got confirmation of what we might have suspected before the first edition … and so too did his detractors.
    Personally, I was very happy to have Tate back in series four as I was already a fan of hers. While I didn’t love everything that was done to Donna Noble, I did appreciate the fact that she wasn’t in love with the Doctor (which is not a knock on Rose) … and now am vastly relieved that RTD didn’t get a chance to introduce yet another romantic interest.
    I, too, would be interested in a Moffat version of TWT documenting his years at the helm. At the moment, I am still a bit weirded out by the relative youth of the new Doctor and his companion. The first time I saw a photo of them together in characted, I flashed to that scene in SG1’s “200” when Martin’s studio bosses want him to consider recasting the Wormhole Extreme leads with “younger, edgier actors”. Watching Mitchell 2.0 tell the new, improved Tela’c “Dude, that hot chick was so totally a Goa’uld” was both funny AND scary!

  • SK

    The original was interesting, and I came away with a more nuanced view of Davies. I’m interested in this update, though more in a voyeuristic way than for any actual advice — so failing winning it free I think I’ll wait for the remaindered copies to appear.
    I bet of all the competitions I’ve entered, the only one I win will be one for a book by Russell T. Davies.

  • Great review, Rob. Somehow paid no attention to this. Would love to read it as am fascinated by TV writing and know very little about it. Always think a script looks easier because you don’t have to put all those boring descriptive filling in bits we fiction writers have to (-: but am sure it’s not. And while RTD has his flaws and generally I prefer the Moff’s writing, I think he has done a really fine and wonderful thing bringing back Dr Who so succesfully. And with my children’s ed hat on I have to support him for the great service he’s done Kids’ TV cos that all impacts on my side of things too.

  • Jason

    I have a very mixed view of RTD and your review of his book makes it seem like my feelings won’t change upon reading it. I love him like a slightly lame and crazy uncle, who has some wild ideas but is slightly embarrassing. I am interesting in peering into his mind, but I think that this book will be a mirror for each person’s opinion of RTD.
    I’m really looking forward to Moffat’s tenure, but, in a way, I will miss the everything and the kitchen sink episodes, no matter how silly they were.

  • “Always think a script looks easier because you don’t have to put all those boring descriptive filling in bits we fiction writers have to (-: but am sure it’s not. ”
    Not exactly 😉 RTD does have at least one section (p115-116) on the effort he goes to with ‘stage’ directions so that directors understand what amount of energy he wants, etc.
    So “Stage directions as opposed to camera directions are a whole art in themselves. The classic mistake we get from newer writers, or writers not used to writing action, is something like this:

    The Doctor runs up the stairs, explosions all around him, and soldiers appear, but he runs into a huge white space, with a glowing blue column rising up into the sky, and it’s crackling like electricity, and a white halo surrounds him

    “Eh? What? What?! Calm down. Break it down… like in an action scene where I use dashes instead of full stops to make sure that everything is moving fast:”

    BEN walks into the room, invisibly. He looks around. Sees the wallet by the bed.

    He walks towards the wallet –

    – but it explodes! –

    – and he’s running, running, running –

    “…Another example: to put ‘Pause’ on a line of its own makes it feel like a pause.”
    Elsewhere (I can’t be bothered to hunt for it), he talks about the difference between saying something like “Ben picks up the laser gun” and “Ben picks up the LASER GUN” in terms of how much attention the director should focus on the gun, etc.

  • I think it’s all that lovely white space in between that makes script writing seems so desirable to fiction writers(-: I’ve had a couple of gos, so I know it’s not really. And I’ve read a couple of books on it, but RTD’s sounds the most interesting because for all his faults he has done it successfully, so he clearly knows whatof he speaks. Thanks for the eg, really interesting.

  • SK

    I think scriptwriting is a lot more like poetry than prose: it’s all about finding the perfect detail, using line breaks to present ideas, the shape it makes on the page, chiselling out every unnecessary word, and so on.
    When I try to write a TV or film script I tend to imagine it’s a kind of verbal storyboard: each paragraph of direction is a new shot that I have to convey vividly in as few words as possible.

  • Thank you SK for that insight. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I think the conveying of ideas in as few words as possible is one of the trickiest kinds of writing you can do. So despite my teasing about it being easy am in awe of anyone who can pull it off.

  • TemplarJ

    I really enjoyed the first edition, I will no doubt buy this one. RTD stands alongside many of the people I admire and would like to cuddle (in a manly way) in that almost every statement he makes is entertaining, even if it’s total gobshite. ‘Hitler would have been a good Doctor’, anyone?
    And i’m pretty sure from various hints and rumblings that the actress Penny was written for was Surran Jones.

  • Electric Dragon

    I too am in this thread. Purely as a competition entry.

  • My friend H really wanted this, went to H2OBoulders but they didn’t have in stock; Amazon had sold out and she’s ordered it on Play.
    I’d fancy a read but am happy to pay up for my own copy if I don’t win. Count this as a comp entry though.
    very revealing insights from your review and lots to chew over regardless of your stance on RTD, his choices and his writing. VERY glad that Tate was bought back for S4; the alternative sounds grim.

  • bob

    I loved this book in the original hardback form and am pretty sure I want to read the extended stuff… though I will see if I can persuade someone else to buy it and let me borrow!
    Good review. It really was a fascinating read though his extended periods of self flagellation.

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  • Just to show it isn’t all about winning stuff let me add, yonks after the end of the competition a thanks for an excellent review.
    I will make a point of getting a copy of this now.

  • MediumRob

    “Just to show it isn’t all about winning stuff let me add, yonks after the end of the competition a thanks for an excellent review.I will make a point of getting a copy of this now.RegardsStephen”
    Well thank you, kindly! Hope you enjoy the book 😉