Thursday, 7 April 2011

Double-duty book review (for Doctor Who fans only)

Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale: The Final ChapterDoctor Who: The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T Davies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay, I'll be straight with you. If you're not a follower of the sci-fi/fantasy television series Doctor Who, there's probably little reason for you to read this book (or this review, for that matter). It's not just about Doctor Who, of course. It's about British television in the early part of the first decade of this century, and, above all, it's about writing, but to get to that, you 'll be wading up to your waist in Doctor Who and if you're not a Whovian, you'll just get lost, trust me.

Russell T Davies is the guy who resurrected Doctor Who. Or ruined it, depending on whom you ask. I'm married to the Resident Fan Boy who seems to have been moving into the latter camp ever since we were exposed to the final four specials that rounded off Davies' tenure in the New Who universe that he created. (The Resident Fan Boy is a Classic Whovian, devoted to the series as it was between 1963 and 1988, although he'll watch anything Who-related.)

Now, I wasn't crazy about those specials either. However, I can credit Davies with making me a New Whovian in the first place. Like many current female fan-girls, I came to DW after watching Tenth Doctor David Tennant in the saucy biopic Casanova, penned by Davies. My reaction at the time: "Hey...isn't David Tennant the new Doctor? Wait a minute...Russell T Davies wrote this? Didn't he write Bob and Rose? He's writing the new Doctor Who too?!?"

So I started watching the new Doctor Who, then I started staying up late to catch reruns of Davies' first Who season, with Chritopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and...

...I became a prime candidate to read A Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter which covers the period when Davies began writing his final full season of Doctor Who while beginning a long, detailed and deliberate series of e-mails with Doctor Who Magazine writer and journalist Ben Cook. This gives fans of the show a peephole into the shadowland of roads not taken in character development, plot, casting, and special effects (usually the first to go to save money).

For example, early on in the correspondence (back when it was going to be just a Doctor Who Magazine article and not a 600+ page tome), Davies describes his ideas for the Doctor's companion to follow Freema Agyeman's Martha Jones. (Again, if you're persisting in reading this and you're not a Whovian, you really should stop. Really.) He envisions an older woman in her thirties as a change to the twenty-somethings usually traveling through time and space with the quadricentenarian Doctor, a lady who has just been jilted by her fiancé. As these ideas are forming, news comes that Catherine Tate, who played one-off companion Donna Noble, will be returning for a whole season. Donna is thirty-something and has been jilted by her fiancé (who actually betrayed her before being fed to gigantic infant alien spiders), but now Davies must come up with a re-introduction, rather than an introduction.

And you've got to hand it to him, this guy is bursting with ideas. I spent the book thinking: "Ooooh...that would have been nice..." or "Gee, I'm glad we were spared that..." It's probably the tantalizing promise of what a story could be and the the fear that it will fall short that results in what seems to be a lot of procrastination on Davies' part. I'm beginning to wonder if this is an essential part of writing, remembering the late Douglas Adam's classic line about loving deadlines and the "whooshing sound they make as they fly by". I certainly felt a pang of recognition myself, every time Davies confesses using up precious writing time doing unrelated work or watching television, even though I have neither Davies' talent nor the responsibility for the success of an iconic television show.

Of course, having this responsibility means having not only talent and imagination, but a healthy ego and a thick skin. Davies has the first three in spades (and enough humorous self-deprecation to temper the ego). However, for all his protestations to the contrary, he has a surprisingly thin skin, particularly when it comes to the slings and arrows of outraged DW purists. When Helen Raynor (writer of two double-parter episodes) fails to resist the temptation of checking out Outpost Gallifrey (a vehement Doctor Who online fan forum), she is badly burned and Davies howls in her defense: Helen is in a delicate position in that she's only just started, and she's on the verge of being really very good - and now she finds herself ruined by this wall of hostility. It makes me furious.

Now, I think both he and she are being a bit silly. Raynor's episodes were certainly not amongst my favourites, but apparently they were vastly popular so somebody must have like them. Davies claims you can't resist seeing what people are saying about you online. I say you can and you must and any DW writer who is misguided enough to venture on to a Doctor Who fan forum must be bonkers, anyway. It's like a fight club in there; I avoid forums on any topic like the plague. I do, however, engage happily in post-episode analyses of Doctor Who episodes on other people's blogs. I think it's one of the pleasures of being a fan. We certainly don't expect Mr Davies, Ms Raynor nor anyone else involved in the show to drop by, take our advice or get their feelings hurt. Most smart actors don't read reviews; smart writers should probably do the same.

What did I learn from this book? I learned that Russell T Davies wrote not only his own episodes, but as the show's head writer re-wrote most of the episodes by other writers. Some evidently didn't mind and their comments on the process are included; a couple probably did. (I don't think Davies re-wrote episodes by Stephen Moffat who eventually took over the series from him.) Again, I was stunned by the quantity of ideas generated by this man; many of which were not used.

Bottom line? While anyone who is not a fan of Doctor Who would not get this book at all, it is pretty well irresistible for anyone who does love this extraordinary television show, whether they're a Russell T Davies fan or not. All Whovians owe a debt to him.

View all my reviews


peteraj said...

OOh, we might fall out here, but probably not. For every "media expert" (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and contributor to fan forums, there are hundreds of thousands of viewers who just love to watch the shows and, however good or bad each episode/series is, look forward to the next one. I'm that age group that, due to the gap before the resurrection by Davies, missed watching Who with my sons, but now have the pleasure of watching with my seven year old grandaughter. And there's the key, the concept and the writing provide something for so many different people to enjoy and that's what light entertainment is. Interestingly (to me anyway) she's now watching the box set of the very first series (which is what locked me into Who in the first place) and seems to derive as much from it, despite its now outdated production values, as from the "new" stuff. Enjoy the forthcoming series.

Persephone said...

I don't think we have a fight on our hands here, peteraj! I'm in agreement; Doctor Who seems to have something for everybody...which is why I love some episodes to distraction and can barely restrain myself from throwing stuff at the television during others. I just have a problem with people who drop in on a blog discussion, when we're having a devastatingly witty moanfest or a lively argument, and post stuff like: "Well, if you don't like it, why do you watch the show?" We love the show, that's why we react so strongly! Helen Raynor and RTD should steer clear of the critics, and I'll probably watch whatever RTD writes next, and avoid anything by Helen Raynor....

I'll also continue to stay out of fan forums. Seriously, those people are insane...

peteraj said...

Yeah, I was just too polite to say so....